Interview with Pilar Perla

pilarperla© Carlos Muñoz

Pilar Perla Mateo (Zaragoza, 1968) has managed Tercer Milenio, the science and technology supplement of the newspaper Heraldo de Aragón for twenty years, a remarkable aniversary given the situation of written press nowadays. As second vice-president of the AECC (Spanish Association of Science Journalists), she combines journalism with teaching in different universities. She has been acknowledged with many awards for her career in the scientific journalism field.

Tercer Milenio is now twenty. How has a scientific supplement lasted this long?
At the time, Tercer Milenio was a pioneer initiative as broadcaster of scientific culture and innovation, and besides, it has proved its forward looking vision. From the beginning, the Government of Aragon sponsored Heraldo de Aragón, who wanted eight weekly pages devoted to science and technology. Its longevity is explained by perseverance in this formula. During this time, Tercer Milenio has learnt to strengthen with a network of specialised contributors. Other surviving key, of course, is to adapt at every moment but always keeping the course.

How has the treatment of scientific information evolved throughout these years?
From the start, we set a very high standard of quality, looking for effectiveness when communicating with the reader –that is, clear and never boring– and respecting scientific rigour and reliability. This attitude earned us the confidence of the scientific community. They became direct contributors of the supplement and learnt to popularise with the reader in mind. I like saying that Tercer Milenio is a supplement for the readers, with the scientists. Eventually, we started adding more popular approaches, with the support of a staff of scientific journalists and popularisers of science. In this way, we have found our voice, built from many voices; a unique signature based on creativity, with popular approaches that complement the scientific information present in other pages of the newspaper.

How did the idea of making a scientific supplement emerge?
Heraldo had published during the years before 1993 a series of articles on every Aragonese research group. From this approach to the scientific community the idea of making a supplement sprung forth. It was born linked to a university department: design and manufacturing engineering. In a few years, this connection spread through all the scientific community. Not just the Aragonese, we have had contributors from all Spain and also from other countries.




«There is still mistrust and ignorance about the way media works»

Scientists criticise that journalists simplify scientific information too much while they criticise that scientists do not know how to summarise and speak about their works in an attractive way. How can this mutual mistrust be solved? Did you spend much time in convincing scientists of the necessity of communicating their research to the general public?
It is hard work. When scientists see that journalists are as demanding with the result of their work as they are with theirs, they respect and trust them. They know we establish a dialogue with the same objective. That is, get the reader to read the article in full (scientists tend to think more about what will their colleagues say). When we have already worked together previously, sometimes they tell me: «You are in charge». That does not happen on the first day… On the other hand, in general, scientists want to make their project and research public, but sometimes we ask them for a wider context or we want another approach. That is harder for them. Some other times, you have to convince them that their work can be popularised even if they do not have any published result. Maybe now more than ever it is necessary to make their work remarkable, transmit the the fact that research needs years and means to reach its goal.

Do you think scientists in Spain see popularisation as something necessary?
They are more and more aware that society can only appreciate what they know and the way to that is mass media. But there is still mistrust and ignorance about the way media works. They have problems when adapting their language and putting themselves in the place of the reader. You can learn to do that. Some years ago, the university of La Rioja created an Online Manual on Communication for Researchers, which I coordinated, that tries to cover this gap. Besides, it does not help that a curricular acknowledgment of popularisation does not exist.

Who exaggerates more when showing the results of a research: journalists or scientists?
It depends on the journalist or the scientist. Especially when competing with politics or economy, scientific news stories need to be sensational to find a place; that is why it is so important to have specific places where we can communicate science. Without any doubt, scientific journalists must always have a critical approach to evaluate the real significance of what sources try to «sell». In general, I am worried that, from media and press offices, we depict science only when linked to success. In fact, science needs to search a lot in order to find something.




tercermilenio© Heraldo de Aragón
Special cover for Tercer Milenio in their twentieth anniversary.

The severe crisis of written press has led to the reduction of staff in editorial offices. How has this affected information of scientific nature?
Science information is suffering particularly. Profitability rules. Some programmes and supplements have disappeared, experienced professionals end unemployed, contributions are not payed and work conditions get worse. Pressure keeps building up on active specialised professionals; to mantain quality takes an enormous effort. Scientific information is a delicate and demanding content that needs a long time of elaboration. The people who decide do not always understand this.

Which are the qualities that a good scientific journalist should have?
Journalism is a job and you learn with practice. I remember a sentence by Alicia Rivera, El País journalist, who said that there is no need to know everything, but know who to ask. A complementary formation is desirable, but attitude is fundamental. To document well before asking so you can put in context, link, delve, make the questions that citizens would make and, an important detail, understand before telling. Scientific journalists serve readers, not scientists. And always, have your curiosity «on».

You also coordinate the blog De cero a ciencia and you have an active profile in twitter. Which role have social networks played in the popularisation of science and how do you think this role is going to be the next years?
Social networks allowed media to enter a direct dialogue with their readers. Not just listen to them, but also encourage an active attitude. They also enable a community of curious people who enjoy the popularisation of science and who demand it. Readers are in the networks, but they are very divided; in social networks we gather according to common interests. The future challenge would be to reach –and conquer– those who are not interested in science. That is why general media can offer something very valuable, which is to be the entry point for everybody to any kind of topic, something that offers space for discovery.




«Competing with politics or economy, scientific news stories need to be sensational to find a place»

Books to Bridge the Gap

Which scientific books do you usually read?
I enjoy the works of popularisation that interweave science with everything, as The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean, whose subtitle is: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements; or The Salt Roads by Pierre Laszlo.

Which literary book would you recommend?
Lately, I have enjoyed the reading, tact and contemplation of The Juniper Tree, a dark tale of the Grimm brothers, in a delicate edition of Jeckyll & Jill illustrated by Alejandra Acosta and prefaced by Francisco Ferrer Lerín.

Lucía Sapiña. The Two Cultures Observatory, Mètode, University of València.
© Mètode 2013.



© Mètode 2013

Two Cultures Observatory, Mètode.

Journalism graduate by the Autonomous University of Barcelona and Masters Degree in History of Science and Science Communication by the University of Valencia. She is a member of the Two Cultures Observatory, a multidisciplinary research group of the University of Valencia that focuses on the links between journalism and science. Now her research is focused on the communication of cancer, both in press and social networks.