Wendy Barnaby meets the first cohort.
The China Media Centre recently launched the first ever Media Fellows programme in China. Modelled on the British Science Association’s programme  of the same name, it’s enabling nine scientists to spend six weeks with media organisations. Unlike the Association’s initiative, it’s also catering for nine journalists to do the same with research or public health institutions. The aim is to equip journalists with knowledge of science, and to improve the scientists’ capacity to communicate their research.
I participated in the programme’s launch in Beijing in October.
The organizer of the project is journalist Jia Hepeng, Executive Director of the fledgling China Science Media Centre (modelled on the Science Media Centre in London), and currently a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the run-up to World AIDS Day on 1 December, the programme focused on HIV/AIDS. Jia thinks both journalists and scientists are to blame for inaccurate public health reporting in China.
Faults on both sides
He explains that in 2010, for example, ‘because of journalists' misleading reports of TB vaccine issues, the public was scared about TB vaccination, with the result that hundreds and thousands of people refused to receive a TB vaccine. In the long term, this will be a great threat to TB control and human health.’ But he sees scientists also at fault: ‘There are many complaints that scientists are too much concerned about their own research, and evade their responsibilities to do science popularisation and communication.’
One of the Fellows, Li Hong, works in the Chaoyang District Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She cites ‘food safety problems and food additives’ as additional areas in which journalists’ lack of medical knowledge has had a ‘bad influence’ on the public.
As in the west, says Jia, reports on health are popular in China. But he points to two differences: Chinese journalists don’t generally know as much about how science works as western journalists do, or pay as much attention to research. Second, that it’s hard to get questions answered: ‘During the H5N1 outbreak, there was quite a lot of information, but the flow is one-way from government agencies and the response to queries is poor. So journalists report what’s going on, not what’s going wrong.’
Building a bridge
Some scientist cite specific reasons for wanting to take part. Physician Xiangling Luan researches infectious disease. Medical care is expensive in China and journalists, she maintains, portray hospitals and doctors as greedy wolves preying on weak patients. This results in patients wondering whether they were misdiagnosed or overcharged, while the doctors are worried that their decisions will make trouble for them. ‘I think it’s necessary for people to know more about medication, doctors and hospitals,’ she continues. ‘An efficient bridge is important, and the programme may act as that bridge.’
Ruifen Zhang researches female reproductive tract infections at the Institute of Microbiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. ‘Chinese doctors are so busy that they have no time or patience to deal with patients’ misunderstandings or unnecessary anxieties,’ she says. ‘I would like to do something to help those women. Maybe some day I might write science articles for ordinary people.’
Some journalists face problems that this scheme will not overcome. Daniel Chang, a reporter with the Chinese Economic Times, cites Hongta, the largest tobacco company in China, pressurizing him to drop a report about the company violating its corporate social responsibility.
However, an evaluation of the British Science Association’s programme found that all three parties – the Fellows themselves, the academic institutions which released them and the media organisations which hosted them – benefited substantially.1 Jia hopes the Chinese scheme will become an annual event, and deliver the same goods.