In the 21st century, science is mostly a global activity. Consider, for example, international collaborations such as the Human Cell Atlas, which connects researchers from all over the world to learn more about the thousands of different cell types in the human body; or the 17,500 researchers from 70 countries that collaborate at CERN in search of fundamental particles of matter; or the ALMA astronomical complex in Chile, with participants from 22 countries. However, most of the science published in specialized journals is authored by researchers from the developed world. Among the top 100 scientific institutions cited by NatureINDEX 2019, a ranking of the centers that dominated research in natural sciences during 2018, there isn’t a single university or center from Latin America.
The same occurs in the global ecosystem of science news. There are regions of the planet that are completely absent in the coverage of most of the international and English-speaking outlets. A clear example was the epidemic outbreak of Zika fever. In Latin America, stories on this topic began to appear in local media in April 2015, almost eight months before the virus arrived in the United States and coverage of the topic began in U.S. media, using as sources mostly U.S. specialists. Something similar occurs when reporting paleontological discoveries in Patagonia: If an investigation involves American and Argentinian scientists, testimonies and even the contributions of the South American researchers are usually omitted, as I exposed in an article published in Undark in 2016.
Recently, I carried out a conversation via WhatsApp with six science editors and reporters from the region, to discuss biases and journalistic dynamics outside and within the countries of the so-called Global South, and what could be done to reverse the situation.
The editors who participated in this conversation were:
Iván Carrillo, Tangible (Mexico).
Pablo Correa, El Espectador (Colombia).
Gerardo Sifuentes, Muy Interesante (Mexico).
Daniela Hirschfeld, Uruguayan science journalist who coordinates coverage of Latin America for SciDev.Net.
The reporters, in addition to me:
Valeria Román, science journalist from Argentina who writes for Infobae, SciDev.Net, Tangible, and Forbes, among others.
Ángela Posada Swafford, a Colombian science journalist based in Miami who has written for National Geographic, Astronomy, Wired, New Scientist, The Boston Globe, and the Miami Herald, among others.
Federico: Why is there a lack of stories about Latin American scientists in international English-language outlets such as The Guardian, The New York Times, New Scientist, Wired, Nature, Science, Scientific American, Popular Science, and so on?
Valeria: One factor is geographical proximity: News is reported mostly on what happens within the country of the publication, or in its area of greatest reach.
Daniela: It also has to do with readers. The region is not of much interest for the English-speaking audience, perhaps because [the audience] does not know a lot about Latin America. This is when one of the famous criteria of newsworthiness in journalism comes into play: It’s not newsworthy if you don’t understand it or it’s not relevant to you.
Federico: And when something is published about research in the region, it’s usually done from a paternalistic perspective. Many times, instead of requesting an article from a local science journalist, the story is assigned to a journalist who does not know the subtle internal cultural differences of each country. Mexico is not the same as Argentina, Chile, or Bolivia. You end up noticing many mistakes.
Pablo: That happens often. However, it is difficult to demand visibility [for Latin American science] when, for example, in Colombia the media has been unable to cover local science adequately. It is possible that poor visibility has some Eurocentrism or other nationalist bias, but before considering those explanations, I would attribute it to a problem of local management, to a weakness of our own institutions.
Valeria: There is an interesting case: Argentina developed the SAOCOM 1A satellite. It is the first of its kind, and made in a developing country. The international media outlets didn’t cover the news about this new satellite. When it was launched from the United States in October 2018, several English-speaking media focused on the SpaceX rocket that took it into space, which was made in a developed country, and didn’t even mention the work of the Argentinian researchers.
Ángela: Many researchers in developing countries feel trapped in a vicious circle because of the barriers that are imposed on publishing their research. Third-world scientists are not cited enough. This is like a catch-22. There are structural obstacles and subtle prejudices that prevent researchers from poor countries from sharing their discoveries with the industrial world. And this invisibility is not only bad for those countries, it can also deprive the industrialized world from critical knowledge. According to Richard Horton, former editor of The Lancet: “The only way to understand the Ebola process and its effects is to publish the work of local researchers.” It is vital that third-world researchers communicate their science to each other. Which also does not seem to happen in Latin America.
Pablo: In addition, there is the investment factor: The money that all of Colombia invests in science is approximately the same amount as the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine invests. It would be naive to think that the science of our countries is at the same pace as the U.S. It is true that some groups achieve the highest quality level, but the production volume is much smaller.
Federico: Do you perceive that many English-speaking media outlets prioritize where a scientific discovery was made over the relevance of the discovery?
Iván: The big outlets tell stories about developing countries or third-world countries when it’s about tragedy, violence, crisis, poverty, a coup…. That is the reductionist image that enriches and reinforces stereotypes.
Federico: And they end up reproducing common images: Argentina as a land of gauchos, meat, and tango; Colombia as a country of coffee, “narcos,” and music; Brazil as the land of the Amazon, soccer, and carnival.
Valeria: It also occurs quite frequently that if a study is the result of a collaboration between scientists from developed and developing countries, journalists from the international media have a bias in identifying and making the co-authors visible. This means that co-authors from developed countries are cited in the news coverage, but the ones from developing countries aren’t. The institutions of developing countries that contributed funds to the research aren’t mentioned either.
Federico: There is also the issue that in Latin America the figure of the press officer in scientific institutions is almost nonexistent. Do you think this has an impact on the absence of Latin American science stories in local and international media?
Pablo: To obtain news coverage, networks that connect the research centers with the media must be built. Only then could journalists … eventually be interested in issues beyond their borders. But [those networks don’t] exist either. Very few universities have communication offices robust enough to do this task at the national level, much less internationally. I also wonder: How interested are we [Latin American science journalists] in the science of another Latin American country? And in the science of African countries? Or in the science of Southeast Asian countries?
Federico: In the global ecosystem of science news, there is an information inequality: Some areas of the world are more visibly represented in the media than others. We don’t usually read about the science that is done in Mongolia, Lithuania, Uruguay, Mozambique, Ecuador, and so on.
Ángela: Exactly! And we don’t know what interesting things we are missing. They could have solutions to global problems.
Pablo: Science and its advances should be covered without nationalistic criteria. But as with soccer, the power of money makes the attention revolve around certain places more than others. Obviously, if at Harvard they say that “2 +2 = 4” that has more impact than if a researcher at the Industrial University of Santander, in Bucaramanga, Colombia, discovers an antidote to snake bites.
Federico: But a good story is a good story no matter where it happens. There are always great themes that attract global audiences: astronomical discoveries, dinosaurs, climate change, Amazon deforestation.
Valeria: Without a doubt, there are good science stories in every corner of the planet. But, in many cases, the criteria followed by many editors in international publications have not been updated.
Ángela: Journalists should look for angles that will interest an international audience. Unusual things: the smallest fish, the biggest bug—that is, the extremes. I think that that invisibility is a mixture of factors: some bias; lack of journalists that are real “hounds” for science stories; the myopia of some editors.
Federico: Do you think that Latin American journalists make an effort to pitch stories about Latin American science to English-speaking outlets? Are these pitches well received? Do editors ask for these stories? Do they ask that the Latin American scientist be interviewed?
Iván: I perceive a great need for science information in our [Latin American] societies to invest our time in pitching stories to foreign publications. While [writing for English-language outlets] helps to bring better understanding of the science that is done in our countries, it is not a priority for me. (In my case, my efforts have always been to communicate to the Mexican audience in the first place, and the [wider] Spanish-speaking audience in the second place.)
Gerardo: I have not perceived a particular interest of foreign editors to learn about the state of science in Latin America. There are colleagues who have made their way in specialized foreign media, which is very important, and I think they are the spearhead. I think that the opening [to Latin American stories] is just beginning.
Ángela: I did it much more before, but I got tired. The thing is, what many international magazines want is stories about science policy.
Federico: How does the relationship between science journalists and researchers affect the news coverage of their science? Do you think this relationship is different in each country?
Gerardo: The institutional communication offices of U.S. and European universities and research institutes, for example, have close ties with the media, and are quick to respond to any request, sometimes within minutes. Any science journalist in Mexico knows that it can often take days to get around the bureaucracy to request an interview at a local university or institute.
Iván: I have directly asked this to scientists, and what I hear them say about science journalists are phrases such as “gossipy,” “nosy,” “always looking for the negative side of things.”
Ángela: Scientists in Colombia are suspicious and laugh at journalists. But when a science journalist contacts them they are much more cooperative.
Iván: Most of the scientists with whom I’ve talked about this consider that it is through popularization that you bring science to the general public. They don’t know about, or they don’t consider, specialized journalism as a tool to achieve that.
Pablo: There is a lot of distrust from the scientists because most don’t even know there are science journalists. Most have never interacted with a specialized journalist, and the image they have probably has been built upon what they have seen on television, radio, or sensationalist newspapers. What I always hear is that they live terrified of being distorted by a journalist. And they usually have a paternalistic take: write and then show it me, so I can correct everything.
Federico: Do you think that the invisibility of Latin American science is also partly due to the fact that English-speaking editors don’t know Latin American science journalists?
Valeria: We need more meetings that will bring more awareness of the capacity of science journalism in Latin America and other developing regions. There is also a bias towards the idea that journalists from developed countries have higher standards than those from developing countries. We should all learn from each other.
Daniela: There are not that many specialized journalists in Latin America, and that means that there are few journalists looking for science stories. As a science journalist from a country like Uruguay (small, with few science journalists, but with a fairly active scientific community), I often fail to cover all the topics I would like to write about. As journalists we must create networks with journalists from neighboring and distant countries.
Federico: The absence of science stories in international media has a curious cascading effect within Latin America: In many Latin American outlets, headlines such as “MIT or Harvard scientist discovered …” are privileged over ones such as “Ecuadorian scientist discovered …” or “Uruguayan scientist discovered …” Do you believe many journalists in the region value more what is happening outside of Latin America than telling stories about the research that is done in the region?
Pablo: For me it is a complex cultural issue. There are societies that have turned science into a pillar and, in those societies, the interest in knowing about the advances of science permeates the whole society—from the leading political class down. Our Latin American societies lack that. And it will take time and creativity to turn them around. How? I do not know. Perhaps with the emergence of new types of leaders from younger generations educated about science.
Daniela: Our countries constantly look toward the North. I don’t think it’s a question of inferiority: There is more progress in developed countries. In addition, in science, scientists themselves look to the North, they train in the North, they write in the language of the North, and often seek money from the North to do their job. That’s why we look North too. I think that when there is something in the North that is valuable for our audience, we have to address it from our local or regional perspective.
Gerardo: In certain cases, publishing science news from Europe and the United States too much in Latin American outlets is a mixture of laziness and disinterest. Any science journalist, from any country, can approach research centers anywhere in the world, thanks to social media, and get in touch with scientists who follow the same lines of research. It is a common mistake into which many of us have fallen, either because of the rush to deliver the article or laziness to enrich it.
Federico: What can be done to resist the flood of foreign science news?
Daniela: It is useful to keep in mind the local angle of international scientific news: We frequently receive international science news, and many outlets, due to lack of staff or criteria, fall into “cutting and pasting” the news wire, without even knowing if at the local level there is something in that field. Therefore, if we think of local science when we see international news, we can somehow give indirect visibility to local work.
Valeria: In my case, I try to cover regional scientific research in the outlets where I collaborate, although it always depends on the moment, the topics, the mission, and the style of each particular publication.
Federico: So how do you think Latin American science can become more visible, both in English-speaking outlets and in Latin America, where we don’t know much about what happens in our neighboring countries in scientific matters?
Valeria: Workshops between scientists and journalists in Latin America must be organized. Also, scientific institutions should be encouraged to hire professionals who know how to deal with institutional communication to build bridges with science journalists. Another recommendation is to create a directory of the scientific institutions of Latin America.
Federico: As well as to encourage dialogues between Latin American science journalists and editors from other regions of the world. Let them know that we exist. Tempt them with the incredible stories of the region.
Iván: The best way to break the wall of cultural colonization is to create and strengthen our own narratives. The stories of many of our scientists and in their projects are pure gold. I think that in our work as science journalists we have to search, rescue, and create the pieces of that [Latin American] narrative. It is not our main task to promote the science that is done in our countries, but without a doubt science journalism can be a showcase to the world of “national” projects—a window that the scientific institutions and scientists themselves should use more to show their research to the region and the world.
Angela: Exactly. [We have to] start thinking of ourselves as global science journalists with local responsibilities.
This story was translated from the original Spanish by Debbie Ponchner. (Read it in Spanish here.)
Federico Kukso is an Argentinian independent science journalist. He writes for Tangible (Mexico), Agencia Sinc (Spain), and La Nación (Argentina), among others. He is a member of the board of the World Federation of Science Journalists. Find him on Twitter @fedkukso.