Interview: Bob Ward

A helping hand to support the pen: Can philanthropy boost science journalism?

An interview with Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the London School of Economics, UK

Bob Ward. Photo credit: Bob Ward
By Vijay Shankar Balakrishnan

During the 4th European Conference for Science Journalists (ECSJ), held in Copenhagen on 26-30 June 2017Bob Ward and a panel of journalists will explore the current climate of austerity and lay-offs in journalism. As part of this discussion, they will also focus on the opportunities and ethical challenges in philanthropically funded European science journalism. Here, Bob Ward shares his views on the subject in advance of his session on the 28th June 2017.

How did you become interested in science journalism?

While doing a PhD in geology, I won a competition sponsored by the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, and had a brief stint reporting on science for the paper. But it didn’t quite work out. I decided that I wasn’t cut out to be a full-time science journalist.

So I started to work in communications and policy analysis, and have been at the London School of Economics since 2008. But my earlier experience of working as a journalist has given me a very deep appreciation of how difficult a job science journalists have. I wouldn’t claim to be a science journalist, but I’d like to think that I have some insight into the job that they do and I’m certainly in support of the important role they play.

Why is it important to discuss philanthropic journalism at ECSJ2017?

Actually, the session will be about climate change. But most of the countries around the world are now facing a changing economic environment of journalism. It is putting a huge stress on specialist correspondents in the legacy media. In many traditional newspapers, the role of an environmental correspondent has either been abolished or downgraded.

However, the United States has seen the entry of several digital-only journalistic enterprises that are not funded by traditional media sources, such as advertising; [they are funded] rather by philanthropic sources. This includes those that dedicate all or some of their journalism to environmental issues. ProPublica is one such enterprise. There is the Center for Public Integrity, which has reported on many aspects of environment. A relative newcomer is the Inside Climate News, which won a Pulitzer Prize a few years ago for reporting on climate change.

Given that this model is successful in the US media landscape, I’ve been very keen to consider whether it could work in Europe. The result is the ECSJ panel discussion.

What are the requirements for philanthropic journalism to work in Europe?

We do need a funder. In the United States, large foundations have been funding journalism and issues on the environment, but there isn’t the same tradition in Europe. We all have a job to raise awareness that science journalism is an important service to the public and that it needs additional support now, particularly for investigative science journalism.

Full-time science correspondents who do straight reporting simply do not have the time to spend on investigative journalism. This diminishes the full dimension of science journalism. The forthcoming ECSJ session is funded by the KR Foundation from Denmark, whose interest is in climate change and environment. I’m hoping that they will think about supporting investigative journalism.

What are the challenges in philanthropic journalism?

Editorial independence is an issue, but it is something that journalists would naturally want to be concerned about. To be successful, a philanthropic journalistic enterprise should have a hefty firewall between funders and journalists. You don’t want the funders interfering with the journalistic pursuit.

What other areas of journalism may benefit from philanthropic journalism?

There are many areas worth investigating. In the UK, a huge amount of money goes into science. The question is: are there any regulatory processes governing that flow? Thanks to Retraction Watch, we come to know about the cases of both honest mistakes and scientific frauds.

I think we need more science journalists digging into something like this; for instance, following the money. For example, journalists in the past exposed the appalling records of tobacco industry funding in scientific research. Now, there is a possibility of investigating the role of pharma companies in the publication of positive results on drugs they develop. Corruption is that much greater now than ever before in science. And the role of science journalists is ever more important.