A categorical imperative for science journalists, Wofgang C. Goede

Journalists are somehow like onions. They have many different layers, but in the core most of them share common values like for example serving the public, enlighten citizens and explain the world. Depending on their culture, political and religious convictions as well as socio-economic strata journalists approach their work differently. To make it more complicated they have to deal with the interests of their editors, publishers and media companies which are increasingly driven by economic forces. In other words: If you put 100 journalists to research one topic you receive 100 different stories, but they all will reveal a tiny slice of the truth and thereby provide orientation. This is the reason why the freedom of the press is being protected by many constitutions.


General journalists and especially science journalists are losing ground not only to PR workers but also to science communicators. They use the same tools, but are driven by different interests. Another field of competition is citizen or cooperative journalism such as blogs and wikis. To make the ethical issue even more confusing, the representatives of the “New Media” claim that they are more objective than conventional journalists, since they are not tied into commercial interests.


The German TELI is the world’s oldest organisation of scientific journalists. It was founded in Berlin in January 1929 by leading writers, journalists of the key media as well as representatives of the press offices of the major industrial enterprises (Literary Departments). TELI’s first president, Siegfried Hartmann, had become in 1919 Germany’s first technical editor. The journalist had a surprisingly modern vision: to educate the public by presenting and explaining facts. He was an advocate to strictly separate the editorial from the advertisement section. Four years later, in 1933, the Nazis got into power and the TELI adjusted to the new rulers.


“The Führer promotes technology“: This was the headline when Hitler gave the go-ahead to the construction of the Volkswagen factory. TELI member and co-founder Willy Möbus wrote the comment „Politics shape technology“. He said that Germany would confront the threats of the future thanks to its technical advancements. “The engineers are at the front, every German is a soldier.” Technology has become a major tool to implement the NS ideology and to get ready for the war. Möbus was a social democrat and therefore under surveillance by the Nazis. Did he write sentences like this to ward off persecution? The TELI is investigating its own history and will present a detailed study at its 80th anniversary.


It will show that many science writers went voluntarily along with the Nazi regime just like scientists. Thus, they enhanced nicely their careers. Agronomists, for example, invented the “Masterplan East” which called for the deportation of 30 million people all the way to the Ural Mountains; but also physicists made compromises and, above all, medical doctors. The balance of medical tests with humans reads like this:


250 000 people died. 20 medical doctors and 3 NS functionaries had to stand trial in Nuremberg in 1946. 8 were sentenced to death, 7 received a life sentence, most of them were released by 1954. Professor Hubertus Strughold, highest ranking doctor in the German Air Force, was not tried but taken along with his research to the US where he became the father of space medicine.


The German engineer Wernher von Braun was engaged in constructing the „Flying Wunderwaffe“, the rocket V2 which destroyed 1944 parts of London. Thousands of prisoners died during the rocketry project. After the war the V2 constructor was taken to the United States. There he could continue his rocketry tests and thus became the mastermind of the flight to the moon and space flight in general.


The prestigious Max Planck Society (MPG) investigated its own history and concluded in 2005: No scientist had been forced, everybody went along voluntarily. More than 50 percent of the biologists employed by the imperial research institutions (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institute) joined the Nazi party. The leading protagonist for eugenics was Konrad Lorenz, who in 1973 was honoured with the Nobel Prize.


Dr. Susanne Heim, head of the MPG commission concluded: Scientists are highly vulnerable to intellectual and moral corruption. “Opportunities will be used if they promise more influence and success.” For science journalists this will most likely hold true as well.


Science journalists have a special responsability in a world which is increasingly shaped by science and technology. This causes problems and risks which science journalists clearly must address. As a guideline the categorical imperative can be employed: In their daily work science writers envision a world which fosters ecological, social and humane sustainability – or in the Kantian sense: “Write so as if the maxim of your writing should become a natural law.” Other professions have laid out their ethical obligations in codes such as the Oath of Hippocrates, symbolized by the Caduceus symbol of the winged staff with two snakes wrapped around it.. The basis for an ethical code in science journalism is the preamble of the World Federation of Science Journalists’ (WFSJ) constitution which states:


“Science journalists must be thoughtful critics and commentators, linking the world of science and technology to the daily life of ordinary persons, clarifying the processes of research and discovery, and making the public aware of the social, economic, and political context of science and technology, and its impact on society.”


The ethical obligation could be expressed by an appropriately designed label or trademark which, for example, could be a world in balance.


The presentation was given at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne.