Misconceptions in science journalism: African experience

Aregu Balleh

Aregu Balleh
Correspondent, SciDev.Net


 

It is not uncommon to find people from the media, including novice science journalists with misconceptions about science journalism. A misconception which is all too common in this respect is that science journalism is a branch of journalism which aims to communicate hard and complex topics in a way that the scientific world can understand them. As a matter of fact, this is where the major problem of communicating science emanates from.

Despite its own distinctive features, the ultimate purpose of science journalism should be nothing less than packaging messages from the science and technology world in a simple and understandable manner for the consumption of the common audience.

Therefore, science journalism targets the masses, and not just scientists who can understand scientific jargon.

“Messages should be correctly packaged to suit the audience, taking into account their knowledge base and the intended outcome of the communication,” Ochieng Ogodo, SciDev.Net Sub-Saharan Africa News Editor told science journalists in Addis Ababa to discuss ways on how to make science and technology information  more accessible for African  development.

Many scientific topics are complex in nature and can only be understood by people in the scientific world.  So, it requires breaking down the information embodied in science, in a suitable and professional manner, to communicate it to a broader audience. This is where the role of the science journalist becomes vital.

“The role of scientific journalism is to educate the masses so that they can make informed choices, or are made aware of preventive strategies,” said Ogodo.

The existing reality in Africa shows that science remains under-communicated due to a number of reasons, of which, the most important is that many scientific works are published in technical language that can only be understood by few.

Giving a specific reference to Kenya’s  experience, Ogodo  described  the existing gap in science  communication: “many feel distanced from the secret world of science feeling like the scientists are ‘them’ and  those who don’t do science are ‘the rest of us'”.

Therefore, messages packaged by science journalists should not only be simple and understandable but should also take into account the fact they can affect the lives of many. Science journalism also goes beyond the public domain to affect policy.

The best science story based on the criteria of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ), is one that can result in the change of policy or political action, Esther Nakkazi, freelance science journalist  and  WFSJ mentor explained.

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.

One Response to Misconceptions in science journalism: African experience

  1. The role of science journalists should also be to attempt to avoid misrepresenting the science information they are translating. Too often it happens that journalists add their own conclusions and editorials which impart their own norms and values to the reader, but which are not actually contained in the original science article, and the journalist doesn’t make it clear to audiences that she or he is doing so. Several times I’ve seen popular science articles (especially ones about psychology and health) talking about how this or that scientific study has “proved” something about human nature (e.g. men are better at such-and-such task, women and better at such-and-such task), then I’ve gone back and read the original article and found out that no such conclusion was actually drawn by the scientists.

    The name of “science” has a lot of authority in many societies so the danger is that people (including journalists, and even scientists themselves) have a tendency to use scientific studies as evidence to reinforce their own belief systems which not everyone may share.

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