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Simple explanations are not enough - assessment and criticism are a must

What is the difference between knowledge and science? Why did the biotech bubble develop in the first place? Find out more as we talk to the freelance science journalist Sascha Karberg.

Since 2001, the 38-year-old biologist and science journalist, Sascha Karberg, has been reporting on the pioneers of cloning or RNA technology. He abandoned his PhD on the genetics of Drosophila when the opportunity arose to study science journalism at the FU Berlin. His articles are published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, the Financial Times Germany as well as in business magazines such as brandeins. Beginning in August, the freelance writer will continue his education as he commences a one-year Knight Science Journalism Fellowship in Cambridge at the MIT (https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.deweb.mit.edu/knight-science/) and Harvard University. After his studies he plans to return and resume his work as a science journalist.

For a while now, science has become acceptable in the media. Do freelancers like yourself profit from this boom?

Science journalist Sascha Karberg (Photo: private)
There is great interest in stem cells and genetic engineering in Germany and that interest is growing. I have received many job orders as I am in the fortunate position of being able to provide information on this subject and do my best to present it comprehensibly. It is true that there is a growing need for science journalism, but it is not certain whether this trend will continue. The question is, however, whether editors want critical science journalism or rather science journalism for adults with the type of explanations that are featured in kids’ science television (Die Sendung mit der Maus). Magazines like SZ-Wissen (supplement of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, editor’s note) or ZEIT-Wissen (special publication of the ZEIT publishing company, editor’s note) are not primarily concerned with an objective depiction of scientific discoveries, but rather with a service for readers. Critical science journalism, on the other hand, considers science as part of society and culture, deals with its events critically and not just descriptively and also explores their effects on society.

In Germany and elsewhere, science is increasingly competing for attention. How has this affected your work?

Societies like Helmholtz, Leibniz and Max Planck have finally learned that scientific results must be utilised professionally. Science journalists like to take advantage of this and are glad that professors who did not like to talk to the media maybe 15 or 20 years ago, have now realised that they are accountable to society - especially when using public funds. This is something that I welcome. The interest of these institutions to present their work positively is certainly legitimate. Of course, science journalists then have to critically examine this science PR. I do hope, though, that regardless of all this self-promotion, scientific institutions stay critical of themselves and feel an obligation to remain relatively objective. This is very different from pharmaceutical companies from which I expect nothing but positive press releases.

The information that science communicates is not always in accord with the media’s interests. How do you as a science journalist see yourself?

Journalists can often better assess whether something is worth communicating. (Photo: Pixelio)
A science journalist’s only obligation is to the reader. We must present those issues that are of primary interest to the reader, but we can also interest our readership in those issues that we believe are, or could become, important.
But I can also understand the scientific community that expects us to take issues into consideration that are important from a scientific point of view. Stem cells are a good example of the distortion between media representation and scientific relevance. In Germany, there are no more than one or two dozen research groups focusing on stem cell research, while other topics are researched by hundreds of teams, and yet these do not appear in the media. Ultimately, the issue of stem cells appears because it has an ethical and political component which other scientific topics lack, despite their intrinsic importance. These criteria – what has news value, what is relevant – are generally better assessed by journalists than scientists.

As a freelancer you are caught between the two camps, between research and science and your clients, the media companies. What do these want? What do they definitely not want?

Editors most certainly do not want stories that may be incredibly interesting in research terms but are irrelevant for the readers. It is not always easy, however, for an editor to know which new research finding is, or will become, relevant for the reader. Let me give you an example. For years I attempted to bring the subject of RNA interference into the media. I was only successful when there was a big breakthrough in mammalian cell research. That was an initial opportunity to write something because editors recognised the importance of RNA interference for humans (RNAi holds great promise for treating a variety of diseases including cancer and hepatitis, editor's note). After the Nobel Prize to Andrew Fire and Craig Mello in 2006, even the most reluctant editors could no longer avoid the issue, which had previously appeared too complex, too difficult to explain or not sufficiently relevant.

You also write for business magazines such as “brandeins”. Has science journalism, which experts consider to be a late bloomer, finally reached other sectors?

Pharmaceutical development laboratory (Photo: Boehringer Ingelheim)
Absolutely. Science journalism is present in many different areas. You can often find science news under the “miscellaneous” section of a daily newspaper. This often appears to have a slightly tabloid-character because often these are bizarre items of news that the audience enjoys reading. But science journalism still has a long way to go in business. Many people are aware that the biotech speculation bubble burst after some people invested in biotech stock without having the slightest idea what it means to produce a drug. Those who know that a drug takes ten or fifteen years to become marketable and yield a profit, are not so naive to make short-term investments. In many biotech companies the risk is incredibly high – not only that the drug fails, but also that the company is not able to survive this long stretch of 15 years. In commerce, the basic knowledge that can be conveyed by science journalism is absolutely essential. Without wanting to step on the toes of my economics journalist colleagues: you cannot assess a biotech or pharmaceutical company solely on the basis of financial statements. You should be able to understand what the company actually does.

Science is often reduced to the life sciences or engineering sciences. In bioethical debates, the humanities, social or cultural scientists also have a say. Is this a way to integrate science in more areas of public life?

In our press office we also have colleagues of different disciplines such as history or social sciences. We also need journalists in these areas because otherwise we will have people writing who know little about the scientific basics. In Germany, every article on bio or genetic engineering requires bioethics.
Bioethics is an important factor in the question: is technology not just relevant for science but also for society, will it advance society or is it even a step backwards? This is a question for society as a whole, not just a technical or scientific one. Many scientists often do not understand that science does not end when an experiment is concluded successfully. This is the point at which it becomes really interesting for the journalist.

Journalists like to adorn themselves with the label of media checks and balances. Yet scientific topics must be researched rigorously. For this we lack understanding, money and people in Germany. This is the conclusion of a study by the journalist association Netzwerk Recherche. While PR budgets become increasingly larger, the corrective function of journalism loses its effectiveness. Do you agree?

Definitely. It is especially difficult in science journalism to explain to the editors that investigative research requires more time and money. There are individual oases where understanding and money are available in order to research a subject rigorously. But most of the time, the cost pressure on the editors leaves no space. Science journalism editorial departments are usually small; often they only consist of one person. This leaves no room to let the daily business rest for two weeks in order to follow up on a university scandal or cases of suspected plagiarism. This is definitely a luxury and not a daily routine. The problem: fewer young journalists are actually aware of the fact that the editorial departments had once special budgets available for special research.

Can a freelance journalist live off his or her work – without PR – in times when the pregnancy of a US Hollywood star or casting shows dominate the headlines?

There is still space for science journalism. It is not an easy job. You do have to struggle, and it is not a life of luxury. But you can make ends meet with lots of work. If you are more concerned about the money, you should get a job in the PR industry. I can manage almost entirely without PR, but that is not easy because fees paid by editors have been shrinking for years. While journalism is still an excellent job for many, it is not excellently paid.

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