Reporting in Hostile Conditions: What U.S. Science Journalists Can Learn from Overseas Writers

Press Freedom
Sarah Kolbe


As soon as he heard about the Egyptian army doctor who’d invented a machine to cure hepatitis C and HIV, Mohammed Yahia’s BS detector went off. After reading a paper the doctor had written, Yahia, the Cairo-based editor of Nature Middle East, was even more convinced the whole thing was a scam. He published a story on his Nature blog about the bogus device, which claimed to siphon blood from sick people, wipe out viruses, and channel the blood back into the patient along with “nutrients.”

“This is not science,” Yahia wrote. “I do not know what this can even be called.”

Yahia published his initial post without fear. But since the Egyptian army has a great deal of political clout, Yahia was putting himself at odds with higher-ups likely to read his criticism of the army doctor’s device as criticism of the regime. Since military personnel removed President Mohamed Morsi from office in 2013, the new military-led government has imprisoned a number of journalists for expressing unapproved views. “Friends started calling me up and said I needed to tone down what I was saying because it could be unsafe for me,” Yahia says. “That was the first time I started to worry.”

In the United States and other countries with freedom of the press, journalists have traditionally been able to report without fear of official intimidation or legal backlash. But for science writers in more authoritarian states, the situation is very different. Writers under such regimes have to solve the delicate calculus of how to report scientific truth as clearly as possible while keeping their jobs, retaining access to key sources, and—most importantly—staying safe.

The Open Notebook interviewed several science writers who have lived and worked under governments that impose constraints on the press. As the U.S. faces a new administration that calls the media “the enemy of the American people,” these writers’ stories are valuable sources of insight about how to convey truth to the public in an atmosphere of fear, confusion, and intimidation.


Watch Out for Self-Censoring

In China, says science writer Hepeng Jia, “the government will never review everything before it’s published. It’s mostly self-censorship.” Chinese journalists are motivated to police their own words, Jia adds, because they know that if they go too far in speaking out against the government, they could lose their jobs or access to important sources. (All legally approved science journalists in China belong to government-controlled organizations, Jia says.)


“One of the things we’re going to have to assess is, how much do we allow ourselves to be manipulated in the pursuit of power?” —Deborah Blum, Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT


When Jia edited a news magazine at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, his reporters knew what they could and could not say if they wanted to stay on the regime’s good side, and he felt he had to forgo coverage of the failing Chinese space program if he wanted to keep his job.

While such self-censorship is not yet par for the course in freer environments, science writer Deborah Blum points out that U.S. reporters might be tempted to shy away from topics or stances that will put them out of favor with the current administration—and perhaps limit their access to key officials.

“You recognize that information is power,” says Blum, director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. “One of the things we’re going to have to assess is, how much do we allow ourselves to be manipulated in the pursuit of power?”

If you’re noticing that you feel reluctant to pursue certain hot-button stories, it can help to hash your concerns out with a trusted editor before you proceed. Knowing that your publication has your back can help you feel more confident about writing what you truly think and believe.


Clarify Your Objectives—Then Hone Your Focus Accordingly

Mohammed Yahia was passionate about letting readers know that the Egyptian military’s virus-cure device was a mirage. But when he realized his reporting could be threatening his safety, he did some serious soul-searching about how to proceed. He decided he would continue writing about the device, but with a different slant: He focused on the bad science behind it rather than on the military’s involvement in its design.

As you begin writing on sensitive or contentious topics, give some thought to your primary aim. Is it to criticize those in power, or to report the truth about a critical scientific matter? If it’s the latter, you may be able to court a wider audience by sticking closely to the facts rather than veering into overtly political critiques. “If everyone loves the military so much and I speak against the military, they will automatically block what I say,” Yahia points out. “If I say, ‘The science here is wrong,’ I might stand a chance of getting people to listen.”


Zero In on Stories with the Most Potential Impact

When science writer Mason Inman lived and worked in Karachi, Pakistan, Science magazine asked him if he was willing to pursue a story on the former head of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, who had allegedly sold weapons plans to North Korea. But Inman was wary, especially after discussing the matter with a local colleague. “My friend there who knew about things said that if I wanted to get the intelligence agencies to start following me, trying to get an interview with that guy would be a good way,” Inman recalls.


Ask yourself what kinds of stories would be valuable enough to warrant assuming some degree of personal risk—and redouble your commitment to chasing those stories.


While Inman might have been willing to withstand such scrutiny under certain conditions, he decided this particular piece wouldn’t be impactful enough to justify putting himself in danger. “I told Science no—especially since what they had in mind was a short story. And the guy was a liar, so it wasn’t clear what new info I’d get out of him, or what to make of anything he said.”

Like Inman, you may ultimately decide the risk you run is out of proportion to the importance of a certain story, and that’s OK. At the same time, ask yourself what kinds of stories would be valuable enough to warrant assuming some degree of personal risk—and redouble your commitment to chasing those stories.


Prepare for (Even More) Official Stonewalling—and Seek Out Alternate Sources

Authoritarian-leaning governments often employ the age-old tactic of ignoring reporters’ questions or responding with meaningless canned statements. This can happen even in countries that ostensibly have a free press, according to Helen Branswell, a former reporter for The Canadian Press.

Under Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper’s administration, which was known for downplaying climate change, government officials restricted reporters’ access to scientific data and frequently shut down science-related inquiries. “You’d tell them your deadline, but it didn’t matter, because you virtually would never hear back before 6:28 p.m., which was too late for most reporters,” Branswell says. On the off chance Branswell did hear back, the answer would be “anodyne government verbiage that didn’t answer the question asked.” (While U.S. journalists have gotten pushback from government agencies in the past, the problem seems likely to get worse under the current administration.)

Despite the stilted atmosphere, Branswell managed to cultivate relationships with a few sympathetic government employees who helped her from time to time—a strategy you could try if you find yourself facing ongoing stalling. Another tactic is to chat with sources at think tanks or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), who aren’t technically part of the government but often have reliable knowledge of what’s happening on the inside.


Have Your Colleagues’ Backs—and Watch Your Own

When you’re facing reportorial headwinds, forming strong professional alliances can bolster your courage and help keep you safe. Mexican science writer Oscar Miyamoto has seen fellow journalists threatened and killed while Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto has been in office, and he has learned the value of strength in numbers. “Establish a close network of colleagues who are reporting similar topics,” Miyamoto says. “This is helpful, especially to notice when a particular institution denies access to information, or even proceeds to intimidate journalists.”


“Journalists are vulnerable and should take care of each other.” —Oscar Miyamoto


Similarly, when you’re in a situation where danger is high (covering a protest against the government, for instance), make sure you and your colleagues have worked out ways of keeping in close touch and providing backup for one another—which could mean exchanging location information on your smartphones or lobbying to have a detained colleague set free. “Journalists are vulnerable and should take care of each other,” Miyamoto says.

Of course, it’s important to look out for yourself, too. Before you enter any potentially dicey situation, make sure you have a lawyer on speed-dial who’s well-versed in First Amendment law, and you may even want to wear a body camera to document what’s going on. To guard against online hackers, consider using tools like GPG4Win or Hushmail to encrypt your emails. These programs scramble incoming and outgoing messages and will unscramble them only after a reader’s identity has been verified. (Stay tuned for a forthcoming TON story that will cover cyber-security in more detail.)


Face Your Fears

There’s no sugarcoating it: It’s terrifying to consider the prospect of being targeted or blacklisted for what you write—or finding yourself in a powerful leader’s social media sights. What’s more, the fallout of any given story can be hard to predict. A journalist’s writing might provoke a mild rebuke, or more severe scorn, or even death threats on Twitter or some other chilling response. After publishing certain articles, Yahia says, “I would get these strange Facebook accounts that would follow me,” which made him wonder if bad actors were trying to track him more closely.


Ask yourself, “If the worst happened, would it still be worth it to get this story out there?” Answering this question will require balancing the commitment you’ve made to your journalistic vocation against what you potentially stand to lose.


Only you can decide how much you’re willing to risk to get a particular story out in the world. But if the war between your journalistic integrity and your self-preservation instinct is keeping you up at night, you can try an approach recommended by psychologist Lynne Henderson. Write down some of the worst-case scenarios that flit through your head when you consider reporting or publishing a particular story—thoughts like “Anti-vaccine activists will skewer me on Twitter,” “I’ll be blacklisted from future press conferences,” “I’ll be doxxed,” or “I’ll go to jail.” Next, as best you can, estimate the chance of each of these bad outcomes happening (1 in 10? 1 in 1,000?). The goal is not to minimize whatever dangers you might be facing, but to put them into realistic perspective.

Finally, ask yourself, “If the worst happened, would it still be worth it to get this story out there?” Answering this question will require balancing the commitment you’ve made to your journalistic vocation against what you potentially stand to lose. If you report on ways coal burning is affecting human health, you might get online vitriol or personal attacks from those who defend coal at all costs—but you might decide you’re OK with that, since you’re supplying readers with important truths they might not encounter any other way. “Personally speaking, I believe I have that responsibility as a science journalist,” Miyamoto says. Blum applauds the courage of writers who find a way to forge ahead despite their fears. “Our responsibility is that information gets out in every way possible until that information makes a difference.”


Elizabeth Svoboda
Elizabeth Svoboda Courtesy of Elizabeth Svoboda

Elizabeth Svoboda is a science writer in San Jose, California, and the author of What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness. She has contributed to Psychology Today, Nautilus, The New York Times, and Aeon, and has also won the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award for Young Science Journalists. You can visit her at her website or Facebook author page. Follow her on Twitter @Svobodster.

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