Ukrainian and Belarusian Journalists Discuss Scientific Sources of Environmental Health Stories

Journalists and scientists have different goals when they consider communicating about science to the public, 16 Ukrainian and two Belarusian journalists were told in a three-day workshop on environmental health reporting held in Kyiv the last week of March.

Journalists need to understand the goals of scientists so they can negotiate with them to gain access to important scientific findings in the areas of health and the environment, the journalists were told. Scientists have important information that the journalists should use in writing about environmental health issues, they were told.

The 18 journalists were participating in a workshop organized by IREX ProMedia in Ukraine and the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta also contributed support for the workshop.

The workshop was conducted in IREX's Information and Press Center in Kyiv and was scheduled to coincide roughly with the 15th anniversary on April 26 of the explosion at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, north of Kyiv, near the Belarusian border. The two Belarusian journalists participating were from Gomel, just north of the border and in the area heavily affected by nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl explosion.

Experts leading the workshop discussions were Dr. Marsha Vanderford and Dr. Sharon Dunwoody from the United States and Dr. Valentina Pidlisnyuk from Ukraine. Dr. Vanderford is a communication specialist at CDC. Dr. Dunwoody is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Pidlisnyuk is a faculty member in the Ecology Department of the Presidential University in Kyiv.

Many of the journalists in the workshop reported they often had difficulties working with scientists. They said many scientists say they no longer can do research because they lack resources. "They live hand to mouth," one said.

"They have a hidden agenda," another journalist commented. "When they talk to you they are trying to find additional sources of income."

"Sometimes you find sources-doctors for example-who know less than you do," another of the journalists reported.

"I disagree with my colleagues," another journalist, who has also worked as a scientist, said. "If there are issues, they are our own issues, not scientific ones. You have to know how to approach them. You have to learn their idioms."

"Researchers are very glad to share with you," another journalist said. "Some journalists have an inferiority feeling. They would rather not ask questions. They just invent things."

Dr. Sharon Dunwoody, an expert on science journalism, said scientists and journalists "come to their interaction with different motives. The journalists view themselves as the watchdogs of society. We say we are here to take care of society's business."

"Scientists say they have to be careful in talking with journalists," Dr. Dunwoody said. "'I have a more noble set of goals,' the scientist says. 'I don't want journalists to intrude on my work. I'll talk to journalists if I have something to say. But it is not an obligation.'"

Journalists do offer something that scientists today often want, Dr. Dunwoody said. Scientists have come to realize that publicity can help them gain support for their research.

"We must understand how scientists work and understand the motives of the scientists," Dr. Dunwoody said. "We must think of this as an exchange."

"Scientists feel that when reporters simplify science it makes it less precise," said Dr. Marsha Vanderford, a specialist in the communication of scientific health information to the public. "They feel this isn't good science. The reporters simplify too much and jump to conclusions when they are not warranted."

This creates a tension in health and environmental science, Dr. Vanderford said. "We know the public has a right to know about science."

"One of the biggest differences between the culture of the journalists and the culture of the scientists is time," Dr. Vanderford said. "Journalists work on deadline. The process of science requires replication. Journalists ask for the conclusion. Scientists say: 'We must wait.'"

At least part of the solution, according to Dr. Dunwoody and Dr. Vanderford, is scientists who understand science and scientific evidence.

"We have to be willing to tell the readers that we don't know," Dr. Dunwoody said. "To be able to write those stories we have to be able to evaluate evidence."

Both Dr. Dunwoody and Dr. Vanderford recommended that the journalists use scientific sources outside Ukraine as well as within. They provided the workshop participants with a lengthy list of sources available on the web and elsewhere. Included is the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, a unit of the University of Georgia collaborating with Ukrainian scientists on work in the exclusion zone surrounding the now-closed Chernobyl nuclear power site.

Dr. Pidlisnyuk told the group that many sources of information on environmental health exist within Ukraine. She particularly encouraged the journalists to turn to NonGovernmental Organizations (NGOs) for assistance.

Dr. Pidlisnyuk gave the journalists a report produced by MAMA-86, a women's environmental NGO in Ukraine, on the National Environmental Health Action Plan for the country. The report listed numerous sources of expertise on environment health issues.

Dr. Pidlisnyuk is a trained chemist who is an advisor to the chairman of the Ukrainian Parliamentary Committee on the Problems of Environmental Policy, Nature Resources Utilization and Elimination of the Chernobyl Catastrophe. She has visited the University of Georgia as a guest of the International Center for Democratic Governance of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

Dr. Vanderford is deputy director of the Office of Communication of the National Center for Environmental Health at the CDC in Atlanta. She was a faculty member in Communication at the University of South Florida before moving to CDC a year and a half ago.

Dr. Dunwoody is a former science journalist and health communication practitioner who conducts research on science journalism. She also conducts workshops for journalists and scientists on the topic.

As part of the workshop, the journalists were asked to break into four groups and develop a plan for coverage of environmental health issues by the team. They were to list stories they would cover, decide what information they needed and where they could get that information, and explain how they would organize the presentation of the stories they developed.

The four groups gave reports on the last day of the workshop on their plans. Many of the journalists indicated they found it hard to take the role-playing assignment seriously.

"Many of the journalists demonstrated a level of cynicism about their situation that is quite understandable but also quite disturbing," Cox Center Director Dr. Lee B. Becker said. "Clearly the challenge for the journalists is to find ways to continue to do their jobs given the cynicism."

Dr. Becker thanked the journalists for their participation in the closing session of the workshop and indicated how much he had learned from their comments during the three days of the workshop.

"I have learned that the heroes of journalism today are not in the United States or in other developed countries," Dr. Becker said. "They are in countries such as this one where journalists are working under very difficult circumstances to write and report about important issues."

The day before the workshop began, Drs. Becker, Dunwoody and Vanderford traveled to Cerkasi, three hours south-east of Kyiv, to meet with the staff of a local weekly newspaper, the Evening Cerkasi. After the workshop the trio traveled to Cernigiv, two and a half hours north of Kiev and just east of Chernobyl, to meet with the staff of the weekly Val there.

The workshop in Kyiv was the second conducted by the Cox Center in Ukraine in collaboration with IREX, or the Institutional Research & Exchanges Board. The Cox Center and IREX conducted a workshop in Yalta in October.