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Helen Mendes

Freelance journalist, Curitiba, Brazil

When did you become interested in pursuing science journalism?

I have always liked reading about science. When I studied journalism, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work in science communication. I was lucky that Ciência Hoje, the most popular science magazine in Brazil, opened an office on my campus. I did an internship there as a reporter, which provided great real-world perspectives on science journalism. Now, more than ten years later, my passion has only grown stronger.

Which of your stories has made the greatest impact?

I think my health-related stories have made the greatest impact. For instance, I wrote a few stories for SciDev.Net about genetically modified mosquitoes that are being used to combat the dengue-carrying Aedes mosquito. Dengue fever is a serious problem in Brazil, and people need information about all aspects of the disease. The experiment raised a lot of questions and doubts about its safety and the ability to reduce the mosquito population. In cases like this, it is important that journalists do their research, talk to independent experts, and avoid sensationalism in order to provide balanced information that highlights the strengths and limitations of the new technology.

What is the biggest challenge facing science journalism?

The downsizing of newsrooms is a challenge for journalism in general, and it has hit science journalism particularly hard. Because of staff cuts, science sections in Brazil are now much smaller or have disappeared from many media outlets.

Finding local stories that are relevant and interesting to our audience is also a challenge. It’s not always easy for editors in Brazil to find stories about local research, which has a greater impact on the lives of people here. There is room for improvement in the flow of information from research institutes to the newsrooms in the region.

Another aspect is the need for more critical science journalism. Reporters who write about science don’t always rely on fact-checking techniques that are common in other beats. Sometimes, we accept scientific information as truth without checking whether there are conflicts of interest, hidden agendas, or methodology flaws in the work that is being reported.

How do you perceive your role as a journalist?

Our role as journalists is to provide accurate and relevant information to the public and to guide people through scientific information. It is our job to inform readers about science issues that affect modern life so that people can make informed decisions and be involved in debate about these issues.

What lies ahead for journalism, and more specifically science journalism?

For some years now, traditional journalism has been rethinking strategies and adapting to a changing environment and to changes in the ways people consume content. There is a crisis in the media sector. There isn’t a simple solution to it, but the world will always need journalism. Media outlets that will survive in this scenario are those who innovate and create valuable content. Understanding the algorithms that rule news distribution on social media also helps.

The fake news storm made people realize that credible journalism is important, so those who provide good quality content have a higher chance of success. This is true for science journalism too. Besides that, in the era of science denialism that we are currently living in, science journalism gains a more important role, and more opportunities to be relevant.