SEATTLE—I have been writing about research in the Middle East for Al-Fanar Media since 2013, and it’s a joy to learn about what scientists and academics in the region are doing—especially because it’s something other journalists seldom cover. But when I first started reporting from the Arab world, each new story felt like a daunting task because almost no one wanted to talk to me. Or at least that’s what it felt like.
The difficulties that I and other journalists face in reporting on Arab scientists has implications for what those who live in Arab countries will learn about their local scientists and their research. It also shows a need to increase the time that scientists in Arab countries spend on communication with the general public.
Until recently, I had largely forgotten about that. It has become a habit for me to send multiple emails to ten or so scientists, with follow-ups by phone and email, to secure a single interview.
Then last month I flew to Seattle, Washington, for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. There, I was reminded of how easy science reporters have it in the United States and other Western countries compared to those of us who work in the Middle East.
Some people at the conference described the meeting as the “Olympics for science.” That’s an exaggeration, but scientists from almost every field of research did travel from across the globe to be there. Nearly 7,000 attendees descended on Seattle where, by day, scientists gave lectures on advances in their work with
Science journalists don’t exist to cheerlead or glorify scientists, but neither is it our purpose to destroy reputations.
themes ranging from the mathematics of rigging an election to the potential future of human companionship with robots (both platonic and otherwise).
Many journalists were in attendance, and some journalists gave presentations about the value of keeping tabs on the quality of researchers’ results. (See a related article, “False Research Results—A Global Problem That Includes the Arab World.”)
Not the Ivory Tower
Throughout much of these discussions, there was a heavy focus on public policy and how to ensure that various demographic groups—including women and minorities—are not left behind in research. Speakers were clearly eager not to be accused of handing down their knowledge from an ivory tower.
By night, attendees had their choice of receptions hosted by various foreign governments, chiefly those of the United Kingdom and European Union, who were eager to showcase their countries as attractive places to conduct research. A science journalism awards ceremony was held at the Pacific Science Center, a science museum where visitors have a participatory experience. At the ceremony, reporters discussed the challenges of simultaneously holding researchers to account while celebrating their successes.
Science journalists don’t exist to cheerlead or glorify scientists, but neither is it our purpose to destroy reputations. It’s important to discuss and communicate the findings of new research so both the general public and other academics are aware of emerging developments. Most of the scientists I met at the meeting appreciated that and were eager to engage with me, open to conversation and quick to follow up on emailed questions.
After one session about the science of academic mentoring, which I wrote about for Al-Fanar Media, I had some follow-up questions for a presenter. I emailed her and got a full reply almost immediately along with some suggestions for other sources of information to pursue. (See a related article, “Making Better Mentors: It’s Not Just an Art, It’s a Science.”)
In a time of viral conspiracy theories and false information spreading rapidly about important issues, such as coronaviruses and climate change, it’s only too easy for incorrect information to spread more quickly than corrections ever do.
A rapid response like that makes the practicalities of reporting on a deadline so much easier. It also makes articles more accurate, ensuring journalists can deliver information in a correct context. That matters. In a time of viral conspiracy theories and false information spreading rapidly about important issues, such as coronaviruses and climate change, it’s only too easy for incorrect information to spread more quickly than corrections ever do. (See a related article, “Arab Researchers Use Artificial Intelligence in Bid to Thwart Fake News.”)
By comparison, it’s not infrequent that researchers in the Arab world to ask to see entire articles before they’re published or to request the right to veto who else I might interview for a story. In the interest of journalistic integrity, we always decline those requests, but the very need to do so hampers the work of a science reporter.
I don’t want to paint all Arab scientists with one brush. There are of course scientists in the Arab world who also actively engage with me like the Seattle researcher, but they are unfortunately in the minority.
I would hope that regional conferences similar to the AAAS might be held in the Arab region, letting scientists from different disciplines meet each other, and putting an emphasis on communicating research and discussing policy implications.
I hope any Arab researchers who attended the conference might return to the region with a similar desire because there is some truly remarkable research going on in the Middle East that deserves attention.