Saying Penny Park’s work is sometimes out of this world might seem cliched.
But it’s true — and Canada’s better because of it.
As a child, Park wanted to be either a journalist or veterinarian. After studying linguistics at the University of New Brunswick (and taking a turn at the university’s radio station), the world of cats and dogs kept calling, so she headed to the University of Guelph, graduating with a BSc (honours) in biology.
But instead caring for animals, Park’s passions were put to good use as producer and senior producer with Quirks and Quarks, the award-winning weekly science program on CBC Radio.
Following that, she worked for the Discovery Channel, helping develop the show Daily Planet, the world’s first nightly TV magazine show about science and technology.
Sitting through board meetings with other properties owned by Discovery’s parent company Bell Media (ranging from the Globe and Mail to TSN), Park recognized the importance of providing accurate information across the wide spectrum of categories touched by science.
Which includes, basically, everything.
Unfortunately, with more being asked of fewer journalists, the quality of reporting wasn’t what many felt the Canadian public deserved.
“Today it’s a 24/7 news cycle,” Park says.
“There’s less time to report on increasingly complex stories, many of which have science at their core – and yet most journalists come from a political science or arts background with little knowledge of science and how science is done.”
So in 2010 she changed careers again, becoming executive director of the newly minted Science Media Centre of Canada, a non-profit charitable organization with a variety of services geared to ensure Canadians receive better information and reporting.
“Journalists are increasingly under the gun,” she says, pointing out how some cover city hall in the morning before switching gears, and beats, to the oil sands, fisheries, climate change, concussions, or the components of a hockey stick — all of which are related to science.
To help, the SMC finds experts to talk on a one-on-one basis in addition to providing weekly e-mail alerts that highlight Canadian stories and offering regular webinars.
Funding comes from universities, research institutions, governments, granting councils and other avenues, though no more than 10 per cent can be provided by any one organization to ensure the SMC continues to operate — and continues to be perceived as operating — as an unbiased organization.
“Being able to communicate effectively and tell stories to help people understand difficult matters is essential,” Park says.
“This is important and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
The Montreal native now living in Toronto is ecstatic to be receiving an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of the Fraser Valley.
“I’m deeply honoured and truly appreciative of this recognition, not just for myself but for the SMCC and what we do. Ultimately more informed journalism contributes to a well informed public, and a well informed public is essential to a healthy democracy. In today’s world so much of what we need to consider when making decisions involves the evidence we get from scientific pursuits.”