One day, this will be awesome journalism

new scientist

 

At the moment, it’s just chaos.

On the top of all the work I am doing for my placement, I am trying to keep the pace with the master and at least my final project’s pitch is ready to go.

I have to say that before spending the last week at Research Fortnight I was very doubtful about potential interviewees. Working there for few days has been enough to put me in touch with a wide range of institutions and experts, which I carefully listed. Now, I feel that my pitch works well.

Writing it was an interesting process, I know that the worst is yet to come but who knows… maybe one day I’ll write something for an important magazine.

This is the Storify I’ve made after a little poll on Twitter, seeking for advice from social media specialists.

#Reflective Journalism – day two

Building a Narrative

Not exactly the most productive Saturday morning. But it’s a weekend after all. In order to write the extensive proposal I am gonna submit to the – potential – hosting platform next week, I need to lay out a clear structure.

The first thing we’ve been taught at the beginning of the year is that each article must tell a story; therefore it needs a narrative that flows well: A goes to B, B goes to C.

This project is about building a strong narrative that flows throughout a series of seven posts. Not only every article must tell a compelling story, but it should lead to the next one like each step brings you higher in a stair. So here’s my first map, I wrote it pencil on paper like a proper marketing strategist. Or an investigative journalist if you prefer.

reflective1 reflective2

Fancy eh?

Maybe the final point needs a bit of clarification, but I’m almost there.

reflective3

#Reflective Journalism – day one

Today London was sunny and spring-scented. For City Journalism people this means not only the end of a tough winter, but also the beginning of our work on the final project.

We can choose between different media, and each path has different rules. There’s print, TV, radio, and online. I chose the latter, which has been my specialism for years by now. Despite being mildly concerned, I am truly excited about this project. This is going to be my first important piece of journalism in English, and I am designing it to address important issues of UK economy and politics.

The project will be a blog consisting of seven posts; it will also include infographics and video. The host is a surprise, I’ll reveal it only once we have a deal… I am a superstitious Italian, after all.

Along with the project, we’ve been asked to write a 1000 words’ reflective piece, in which we should describe the editorial production process, our personal and professional evolution, how the project has been laid out. Through this reflective work we’re supposed to set goals and evaluate them at the end of the year. It might happen that they turn out to be different from we thought at the beginning, it’s part of the process.

For the time being, the only thing I am sure about is the title, “What do you do in a recession? Science, Innovation and Money”.The topic is a combination of different issues, chosen among what to me is more interesting, relevant to understand how science talks with the society. I will speak about research funding, economic and cultural uncertainty, spending, resilience and creativity in science and technology.

And of course, given my – enquiring soul – (someone would call it gossip slant) I will play around with FOI. Fingercrossed about that, it never goes how it’s supposed to.

While keeping you up to date on my progresses I will use this space to take notes and be sure that nothing is forgotten along the way.

day one

How I crowdsourced a story on citizen science

Igor was a citizen scientist too!

During the last weeks I’ve had only a taste of the unbelievable amount of work that I am expected to survive to the end of June. So far, the outcome of lack of sleep plus permanent stress has been me just falling asleep in class.

But don’t worry, it will be worse.

There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on though. For instance, one of my favourite stories so far was crowdsourced via Twitter. I think it is a little, nice textbook example of how social networks can help finding stories and interviewees very quickly.

I was planning to do my next radio piece on an architecture project that I am supposed to cover for The Green Rooftop. Happened that I had the PR disappearing for a couple of days. Still hurt by my previous on-field report, spoiled by the worst media manager ever, I decided to spike the story and find something else.

Going through my twitterfeed, I found an interesting hashtag: #citizenscience. I applied it to the stream and followed the links, soon discovering that citizen science, or open science as somebody prefers to call it, is a very interesting idea. It is based on the principle of collaboration between people and scientists. People collect data on field and participate to the designing process of the experiment.

Scientists say that usually datasets collected by citizens are very accurate and reliable, because they are produced by people who know well the local environment.

Professor Muki Haklay, director of the research group in Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS), says that Charles Darwin was a citizen scientist as well, since he wasn’t employed by any university or institution. He was an amateur naturalist.

I interviewed professor Haklay after discovering his project via Twitter, and I did the same with my second interviewee, an expert from the Natural History Museum. They are carrying out a big project, OPAL, aiming to involve youngsters in nature’s observation and data collecting. OPAL, now at its fifth year, has been a great success.

It’s kind of funny how I crowdsourced a story about crowdsourcing. I was fortunate to find a very interesting topic and nice people to speak with. However, much more is going on and I think I won’t let citizen science out of my agenda for a while.

Next to come, my little piece of radio on the topic. Meanwhile, if you are curious, here’s an in depth story of the Science-for-Everyone:

2013. Brace yourself

My personal survival guide.

So, here we go with a new year. So much time to spend at your best, some ideas, more fears than yesterday, less than tomorrow.

And a recession to face. Let’s forget about climate change, just for a minute. The economic crisis – not only in Italy or in the PIIGS – is just around the corner and is more than worrying for people approaching their first job (like me in the UK). Tackling the situation requires individual actions as well as Government’s ones.

Sometimes I wonder where is my place in this historical juncture, and where the society is going. Will I have the chance to come back to Italy with a decent job, or the UK will become my new home?

For now, I am gathering suggestions – given aloud or not – from teachers, bosses, colleagues; all the world around me, both in Italy and in the UK. What I am trying to do is answer the question our teacher asked on early december, just before the end of the term:

What do you do in a recession?

What I would do is specialize. Building my own, unique expertise may help to be more competitive on the market, and it might overweigh my language weaknesses.

Secondly, I mean to shift as much as possible to new media, combining technical skills (and maybe a bit of SEO) with smart content managing. There are things you can say and show on the Internet which can’t be said anywhere else.

For instance, interactive data visualization. Doing it properly is not easy, as it requires a number of competences, ranging from investigative journalism to data analysis. But it’s also really funny, and has a great potential in terms of employability, I think.

What I think the Government should do, instead, is enhancing innovation. Investments in new ideas have the potential to pull the country out of a recession, because they lead to a new economic planning and eventually produce different social and cultural paradigms. But this is a long term measure, which doesn’t have tangible effects in the short period.

So it is very unlikely to be adopted on massive scale, as I have sadly experienced in Italy. Under this respect, I don’t think that the Union Jack will behave very differently. The more the crisis get serious, the more a crunch occurs in the country’s economy. And the long term investments are always the first to be killed.

What we can do as individuals? We can participate to the community’s political life, of course. But moreover, I think, we need to bear in mind our personal survival guide. What would you include in your list?

Skeptical Science: how do they do

I am truly in love with this absolutely brilliant website, which invites its readers

to get skeptical about global warming skepticism.

In particular, I find hilarious the way they explain serious scientific matters in an ironic way, which ends up in mocking the sceptical approach to scientific method.

However, it’s important to clarify why in this case mockery is fully justifiable. Normally, in a scientific debate one should always respect the opponent, recognising his intellectual honesty.

But within the climate debate we face a plainly dishonest and  clumsy data manipulation. Although it is often effective in addressing the public opinion, this practice is based on bad science. Sceptical science commits brutal mistakes in terms of scale and moreover, when presenting figures describing climate change trends,

it uses a cherry picking strategy.

What is cherry picking then. Firstly, here is a picture which tells more than a thousand words:

from Skeptical Science

Basically, what they do is considering a small bit of the available data to describe an entire scenario. As you can see in the graph, since the ocean heating is a massive phenomenon, which contradicts the sceptical claim about climate change being a minor problem, they just don’t take it into account.

The same is done, an this is definitely more worrying, with the calculation of the global warming trends. You might have heard that climate change is a hoax, because rise of global atmospheric mean temperatures is so small as to be irrelevant. Sometimes you will find such claims supported by graphs and figures.

Skeptical Science explains how do they obtain their numbers. Introducing the Escalator!Here you can see how sceptic scientists view global warming:

Below, how realists calculate it:

And here, both frames together:

This last graph shows what does “cherry picking” means: looking only one bit at a time, you’ll notice that the the mean temperature’s trend seems to remain the same and in some cases even dwindles.

Whitout the red line clarifying that in a span of about 40 years the mean temperatures of the global surface have spiked, you wouldn’t understand why scientific community and policy makers around the world are so worried.

In science there are no certainties, but there are fields in which bad faith is so crystal clear that a little irony is definitely allowed.

tweet climate

Trust the UK!

The Freedom of Information Act

is an Act of Parliament of 
the Parliament of the United Kingdom 
that creates a public "right of access" to information 
held by public authorities.

For those who don’t know how it works, like me when I heard of it for the first time, it is based on a simple principle of trust and transparency. You ask, the Government responds.

The idea is that clear, but the procedure can be tricky. There are a number of bureaucratic obstacles, and often you will see your request rejected because of national security, or because the text you have sent was inaccurate or convolute.

So, hypotetically, the public authority could dodge the regulation without serious consequences. As a journalist (or particularly stubborn citizen) you can appeal until trial, but most people would probably give up well before.

But, slightly surprisingly for the Italian spectator, accustomed to look at the public administration as a hurdle, this doesn’t happen so often. Instead, the public officer is usually a person who really believes in what he does and tries to help you the most.

Here lays the beauty of this system, which is based upon mutual trust between citizens and public institutions.

The law and the regulations are in place, but they can work only thanks to adminstration’s honesty and people’s trust.

Sometimes I wonder if such an agreement could be possible in Italy. I doubt it; and not even because of bad faith, but above all because the public administration is deeply disorganized.

However, in Italy there is an association which claims the adoption of Freedom of Information Act. And the more I dig into this topic, the more I discover we have a number of different regulations supporting transparency and open data in the country.

I wouldn’t have thought so, given Italy has one of the worst situations in the world in terms of press freedom.

However, it’s good to know that some regulation designed for the common good does actually exist also in my troubled country.

Bad science and GMOs make journalists happy

In a topic as politically charged as GMO’s, bad science can make good headlines and it’s crucial to check out the science before taking it at face value. Recently, two pieces of research add to that controversy.

Both of them reported potential dangers of GMO’s, but were they really just about biotechnology?

The first paper came out on 19th September, and it’s entitled  “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize”. Its main author is the  French researcher Gilles-Eric Séralini of the University of Caen.

After a two year experiment on rats fed GM maize, he claimed that this kind of food would increase the occurrence of cancer.

As the paper’s abstract says:

“The health effects of a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize (from 11% in the diet), cultivated with or without Roundup, and Roundup alone (from 0.1 ppb [parts per billion] in water), were studied 2 years in rats. In females, all treated groups died 2–3 times more than controls, and more rapidly.”

The study was strongly criticised in the scientific world. For instance, in a 4th October press release, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that:

“[…] a recent paper raising concerns about the potential toxicity of genetically modified (GM) maize NK603 and of a herbicide containing glyphosate is of insufficient scientific quality to be considered as valid for risk assessment”.

Some commentators, such as Forbes contributor Tim Worstall, argued that the paper was more politics than science, as the research was scientifically inaccurate. However, even if considered poor by scientists, it made a number of headlines, especially in newspapers with an anti-GM stance, as bad news is always attractive for the media.

The second paper was published on 28th September on the peer-reviewed Environmental Sciences Europe. The author is Chuck Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. He supports the idea that genetically engineered crops would increase pesticides usage instead of reducing it, as was previously thought. In the ongoing political battle about possible risks for environment and biodiversity, one of the strongest arguments in favour of the herbicide-resistant corn is its potential to reduce chemicals usage, preserving both local ecosystems and farmers health. The relevance of this paper lies in the contradiction of this common assumption about GMO’s. [Good]

As the abstract concludes:

“Herbicide-resistant crop technology has led to a 239 million kilogrammes (527 million pounds) increase in herbicide use in the United States between 1996 and 2011, while Bt crops have reduced insecticide applications by 56 million kilogrammes (123 million pounds). Overall, pesticide use increased by an estimated 183 million kilogrammes (404 million pounds), or about 7%”.

However, Benbrook’s study has been criticized for misuse of data, as he uses forecasting and interpolation inaccurately, according to some analysts. Further, it is worth noting that Dr Benbrook is Chief Science Consultant for the Organic Center, which could mean that he has a conflict of interest.

GMO’s are certainly a fashionable topic for newspapers, but as the two cases above demonstrates it is liable to ideology, bias and economic interests. Thus, it is important to understand how science is not only lab coats and why each scientific breaking news should be approached with a healthy scepticism.

Fifty months to go

The clock is ticking. This alarming claim reminds of a even more disturbing figure: fifty months to the climate tipping point, after which, according to climate change experts, the world will pass the fatal threshold of 2° Celsius of global temperature increase.

Fifty months are the half term of the One Hundred Months campaign launched in 2008 by New Economics Foundation (NEF), to address climate change by involving all the different components of society. Politicians, businessmen, think thank representatives, and citizens are invited to take part in this extreme attempt to stop the slippery slope of global warming.

According to the climatologists of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) the limit of 2° is the maximum acceptable figure beyond which negative fallouts will be unmanageable. If the concentration of greenhouse gases would exceed 400 parts per million (ppm), laying to a global warming of 2° Celsius, we wouldn’t be able to stabilise the global mean surface temperature, which is still possible if we act now.

The hundred-month figure is probably more marketing than actual science, as the fact checking blog Carbon Brief points out; in fact, climate forecasting is normally done on a larger scale. Thus, there is probably a gap between facts and campaign claim, though pretty small.

However, the idea of a countdown is effective and the entire campaign, based on viral communication strategy, portraits the aim of involving people with different backgrounds and lifestyles. In general, I really like this project’s smart use of the internet as a mash up tool, capable of creating communities both online and in the streets. The Guardian covered the campaign as well, since its start in 2008, and recently provided a number of features and interactive tools about it.

I admit I don’t particularly appreciate the constant ticking sound in the official website. It’s impossible to turn it off, to netiquette’s dismay. Anyway, I think it was done on purpose to put a little pressure on users.

In these days, London was the scene of several initiatives within the campaign’s half term. In Southbank, on the 1st of October, the Southbank Centre hosted a 5×15 event: five speakers give a talk of 15 minutes each. The format, which echoes a TED talk, made this event particularly attractive for a large public. I was there for Monbiot, but I actually enjoyed all the talks.

Protagonists of the night were Giles Fraser, former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, Guardian columnist George Monbiot, Prof Kevin Anderson, Head of Climate Change & Energy Research and Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, as well as Saci Lloyd, author of ‘The Carbon Diaries’.

Here you can see some highlights of the event.

Tools for Journalists: TweetDeck

Il primo giorno di scuola sono arrivata tardi, facendo la mia prima figura di merda nei primi dieci secondi di corso. Passato il quarto d’ora in cui avrei voluto sotterrarmi, ho trascorso una magnifica giornata.

E ho scoperto un nuovo aggeggio che mi risolverà un mucchio di problemi: introducing TweetDeck, aggregatore di account Twitter. Semplicemente, una pagina che consente di visualizzare contemporaneamente gli streaming di diversi account, le liste, le menzioni e tutto quello che vi pare. Magari molti di voi lo conoscevano già, per me è stata una sorpresa. Enjoy!