Debate erupts over whether science journalists must have a background in science

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net


Do science journalists need an educational background in science? The issue the invariably creates controversy whenever science journalists meet to discuss the quality of their profession. This week’s workshop in Addis Ababa has been no exception.

The spark that set off the debate was a recommendation from a survey of media coverage of science and technology in Africa carried out by the department of journalism and communication at Makerere University in Uganda, and sponsored by UNESCO.

According to Ivan Lukanda from Makerere, who presented the results of the survey to the workshop, “it is important for media organizations to invest in people with science and technology backgrounds rather than those with only journalistic knowledge and skills”.

Predictably, this did not go down too with some of the science journalists in the room. George Claassen, who is both a prominent South African science journalist and a lecturer in science journalism at Stellenbosch University, strongly contested the conclusion.

Some of the best science journalists he knew, he said, did not have a scientific background, but had picked up their knowledge of science through both personal and professional interest. “It’s the ability to ask the right question that counts,” he said.

Otula Owuor, editor and publisher of ScienceAfrica, based in Nairobi, Kenya, said that the idea that a science journalist needed a good scientific background was “outdated”.

He added that “a well-trained journalist who is interested in the issues that he or she is writing about will produce a good article”, regardless of their educational background.

Another protest came from Dino Onifade of Nigeria, publisher of the website AfricaSTI.com, and president of the African Federation of Science Journalists.

Onifade — who started his career as a business journalist — argued a science journalist had to cover so many topics that training in one scientific discipline was of little value in writing about others. And he claimed that the Makerere researchers lacked empirical evidence to justify their recommendation on the need for a scientific background.

But Lukanda stuck to his guns. He pointed to a finding of the Makerere study that very few media houses invest in training their reporters to cover science and technology. As a result, most journalists did not feel confident writing about science, he said.

Indeed he quoted a conclusion of the study that “the lack of knowledge and skills among journalists explains the little and low quality of coverage offered to science and technology”. This one will clearly run and run, in Africa as elsewhere.

This blog post is part of our Making Science and Technology Information More Accessible for Africa’s Development blog, which takes place 19-20 September 2012, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.

2 Responses to Debate erupts over whether science journalists must have a background in science

  1. aademokun says:

    Thanks for this post David. While I sympathise with Ivan’s view (“it is important for media organizations to invest in people with science and technology backgrounds …) and agree with the first half, I disagree with the implication that this should be at the expense of journalism skills. I think the (journalistic) skill of asking the right question is very important and necessary for good science coverage. I wrote a blog about this that may be of interest here: http://blog.inasp.info/do-journalists-need-to-understand-the-scientific-process-to-write-good-science-stories/

  2. In fact the debate as narrated above is not considering the fundamental purpose as to why scientific information needs to be shared with the larger community/ populace. The people have a right to know at least about the applied aspects of the scientific inventions and the related public policies. The pure scientific inventions may have certain academic complexities to be articulated by non-subject authors. But in the recent case of the ‘God Particle’ experimentations, media played a commendable role to communicate the merits and the desirability of the outcomes, in the welfare of the people. Media took the active help of the scientific community to communicate such a purely academic matter to be shared with the mass, not having scientific/ even any formal educational background! Here lies the point of departure. Normally, the scientific community used to be secretive because of the competitiveness amongst them. Secondly, they normally share their knowledge with a selective group of people through the so called scientific journals and magazines, Thirdly, they don’t consider the rest of the population as competent enough to perceive the pieces of knowledge acquired by them and hence, sharing with the common man becomes unnecessary or extra. This imposed state of approach delinks the mass to participate in the process of formulating/ conceiving the application of science per se. We are advocating against nuclear proliferation of the world; we fought wars on the pleas of Weapons of Mass Destruction; we wish to selectively possess strategic scientific technologies and so on, mostly in isolation. We are tuned/ oriented to a conventional pattern of practicing the Scientific Knowledge, both in their acquisition and application, isolated to the common populace, remaining always at the receiving end. The common population is not allowed to participate in the guiding and decision making processes in the scientific arena. After the scientific community, the political executive claims the authority in directing the process often, without having a so called science qualification! The common populace, which has to ultimately bear with the incidence/ random impact, shouldn’t be kept at bay. It must be allowed to interact and participate in the process. Certain countries succumb to the international influences and do not hesitate to compromise with the basic national needs thereby pouring huge amount of resources into space research and war technology. The advanced countries try to have a monopoly of the latest technologies to maintain the economic and military hegemony! There are serious misuse of scientific formulae and products in an unethical manner by certain unscrupulous lot, without caring a fig to people’s welfare! All these things are happening due to lack of public awareness to the effect caused largely due to non-involvement of the common populace in the decision-making/ channelization/ implementation processes of Science. Like Democracy/ Politics, Science and its process need to be oriented with ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’ approach! The Scientists, should now try to attribute a portion of the publications to their social relevance/ people’s welfare, simultaneously inviting suggestions from the larger populace! Or they should make separate provisions for the ‘Media’ to share their acquired knowledge with the larger society after sharing it with the exclusive qualified group! Science, like any other branches of knowledge, belongs to the civilisation and shouldn’t be developed in isolation. Science and Scientific temper need to linked with the people’s participation/ influence to be people-friendly, specific as well as holistic. Therefore, Science Journalism can be a joint venture of both the ‘Media’ and the ‘Scientific Community’, without diluting the respective profession by adding fervours. A journalist acts more as the representative of the common populace in its holistic context. It is not always feasible on the part of a standard journalist to rise to the desired scientific level to perceive the specificities of the various specialities of scientific knowledge. Rather it would be a more convenient, feasible and desired mode that the concerned scientific entity should develop a moderated link with the ‘Media’ to reach out to the people! Where is the dispute!!!

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