Misconceptions in science journalism: African experience

September 21, 2012

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.

Awakening the innovating giant in Africa

September 21, 2012


Esther Nakkazi
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


Awakening the giant within is what two funds, the Rwanda Innovation Endowment Fund (RIEF) and the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA), intend to do for African innovators.

With support from President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who is a great fan of information technologies (IT), the RIEF is a sure way for any enterprising individuals, students, researchers or youth in Rwanda to commercialise their innovations and get marketing experience.

Didier Habimana, from the UN Economic Commission for Africa’s Sub-Regional Office for Eastern Africa (SRO-EA) told a meeting on ‘Making Science and Technology Information More Accessible for Africa’s Development’ in Addis Ababa this morning that each successful project will have availed to it up to US$50,000 and up to 5–10 projects will be funded.

RIEF’s priority funding areas for now are agriculture, manufacturing and ICT. Basically the winning innovators will get financing for their ideas or products, mentoring and professional advice; they will be matched, build teams and gain entrepreneurial experience.

“We are convinced that great companies will come out of this initiative,” said Habimana. This initiative was started this year and is supported by the Government of Rwanda officially launched in partnership with the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and One UN Rwanda.

Ms. Aida Opoku-Mensah, Director of ICT, Science & Technology Division at ECA has since said that, “supporting innovators, protecting their knowledge and commercializing their innovations is the essence of the RIEF”. So go on and make that application today.

Or you can also apply for the 2013 Innovation Prize for Africa now running for the second year. The concept is almost the same but I like the fact that its tagline is “the future we innovate” meaning that there is a belief that the best way of predicting the future is to create it.

According to Eskedar Nega, Programme Officer UNECA/ISTD who was speaking at the same forum, IPA is an invitation to link arms, use our potential, create efficiencies and commercialize the best ideas. “This is the future Africa deserves — a future we innovate,” says Nega.

It is a different approach to African innovations since most of them languish in laboratories due to lack of funding to commercialise them.

IPA is focused on five critical sectors: agriculture and agribusiness; ICT applications; health & wellbeing; manufacturing & services; energy, environment and water.

The winner takes home US$100,000. The second prize is US$25,000 and the third which is a special prize for social impact innovation is US$25,000. The deadline for the 2013 prize is October 31st so go on and apply now.

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.

Africa yet to harness the power of the media for its science development

September 20, 2012

Aregu Balleh

Aregu Balleh
Freelancer, SciDev.Net

The workshop organizers picked a theme which is so crucial but often overlooked —making science and technology information more accessible for Africa’s development.

Yesterday  there seemed to be a growing consensus that in Africa communication gap remains to be one of the greatest factors impediment to the advancement  of science, technology and innovation  as a sector and limiting  its contribution to development.

Speaking at the workshop founder and former director of SciDev.Net,  David Dickson, explained (citing studies) that lack of dissemination of research findings is the third major obstacle to uptake of scientific information in development policymaking, following low scientific understanding of policymakers  and limited openness of politicians.

“The communication of accurate and accessible information about science to both policymakers and the wider community is essential in two major ways: to achieve inclusive social and economic development, and to ensure adequate and continued support for scientific research,” Dickson noted.

By way of addressing  the needs of both policymakers and the general public, the  media  play an essential role in providing the conditions in which a knowledge society can flourish.

As Africa moves ahead towards attaining sustainable development —  aided and  driven by science, technology and innovation —  the role of  the media in communicating such development to the public will remain vitally important.

Such essential role of the media is now already being recognized in Africa, according to Dickson.

“The demand for improved science communication and for improved science communication skills is increasing rapidly across the developing world, and in particular across Africa,” Dickson said.

Nevertheless science journalism in the developing world is still grappling with various challenges.

Lack of openness on the scientific world; lack of professional capacity of journalists; and lack of capacity of media editors represent few of the major challenge being faced in communicating science. Science journalists’ role as science communicators — when they get it all wrong —will be dangerous for they will fail to be critical and instead end up doing a public relation work for the scientist or the research organization.

And the consequences of such mistakes will be more grave with science reporting  than in other areas of journalism.

SciDev.Net Sub-Saharan Africa News Editor, Ochieng’ Ogodo stressed that investment in the professional development of  science journalists in Africa is a key to addressing media professionals’ capacity needs on science,  technology and innovation reporting.

The role the media should play can be summed up into three major areas, Dickson concluded:  to provide accurate and accessible information; to provide platform for debate; and to act as a protector of the public interest.

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.

Sudanese media have a rich history, but they have failed to cover science

September 20, 2012

Ochieng’ Ogodo

Ochieng’ Ogodo
Sub-Saharan Africa regional news editor, SciDev.Net


You may not know but the modern press has existed in Sudan since 1903 with the first publication being Al-Sudan newspaper.  But even with that long history, the media in Sudan have been dominated by political issues with science having little or no place in the print or electronic media.

And a Sudanese journalist, Ishraga Abbas, could not have put it more precisely: “Despite the fact that the Sudanese press has succeeded in attracting and mobilizing the Sudanese people in all political issues, it has failed at the scientific level.”

She told the workshop that about 60 press companies are in the hands of the private investors whose main interest is in reeking in huge profits and does give science journalism a chance — they do not consider science news as capable of gaining following among their readers and listeners.

In Sudan, there are no segments in the media dedicated to science news, training programmes on science journalism and any journalist thinking of cutting a niche for herself in science journalism could be “making a grave mistake” according to  Abbas.

The media in Sudan allocates very little space for the scientific issues — a little surge is only seen when there is an emergency, especially those to do with public health, food safety and the environment.

But even in these noble efforts, according to Abbas, the quality still is still wanting in meeting the depth and the professional standards that guide by journalism.

Perhaps, the saddest thing about this is that this revelation came against a backdrop of a visible surge in African science communication and science journalism, of which this meeting clearly demonstrates.

Something needs to be done to rescue Sudan science journalism from its present state.

“The people of Sudan need scientific information to help them address the many changes they face in their daily lives,” Abbas.

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.

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

September 20, 2012

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.

Communication gap as the greatest impediment to science’s role in development

September 19, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

It’s almost ten years since SciDev.Net launched its first regional network — covering Sub-Saharan Africa  — to promote science communication in the developing world, at a meeting held in Entebbe, Uganda.

At the time, the idea that science communication had an important role to play in African development was relatively new. Indeed, even support for science was still seen as a luxury not only by many African governments, but also — with some notable exceptions — by international aid agencies.

Today, few such doubts remain. If they do, they were not in evidence during the opening session of the two-day workshop ‘Making science and technology information more accessible for Africa’s development’, being held this week at the seat of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The meeting is bringing together about 50 science journalists and science communication specialists from across Africa. Their task is not to address whether science communication has a role in development, but how this role can best be fulfilled.

At the opening session this morning, Jean-Pierre Ilboudo, regional advisor for UNESCO, described how the workshop was the second of five of a series of five being organized across Africa, the first of which took place in Abuja, Nigeria, last November.

“The greatest impediment to the development of science, technologic and innovation in Africa, and its contribution to African development, is the communication gap that exists among the major actors and players,” he said.

The media could play a critical role in bridging this gap, Ilboudo added, since journalists played an important function as intermediaries between scientists, policy-makers and the public.

UNECA conference centre (Credit: David Dickson)

Thierry Amoussougbo, of the ICT, Science and Technology Division of the UNECA, speaking on behalf of the division director, Aida Opoku-Mensah, had a similar message about the important of building capacity in both science and science communication.

But be pointed out that there were many impediments to communicating scientific output. “For example, unlike areas such as sport, politics and culture, science reporting is not part of the daily routine in most media houses.”

Problems ranged from the preference of journalists schools to admit students with backgrounds others than science, to the fact that scientists have their own communication outlets, such as scientific journals, from science reporters were left on their own to extract information.

On the positive side, however, Amoussougbo noted that several science magazines and feature services, as well as programmes on TV and radio, have recently emerged. “There is currently an environment to improve and intensity science communication on the continent,” he said.

There was an equally positive message from Mohamuda Gaas,  State Minister of Science and Technology, Federal Republic of Ethiopia.

“In an era of globalization, the ability of any country to achieve a decent standard of living depends on the extent to which it can harness science and technology for development,” he said.

“It is therefore critical to promote science, technology and innovation, and strive to get the maximum benefit out of them by creating an environment conducive to accessing any information that could contribute to the enhancement of economic growth and development.”

All very positive so far.

There is general agreement — perhaps not surprising in a meeting of science communicators — that science communication is important, and needs reinforcing in any way possible.

The real test of the meeting will lie in the practical steps that some out of it. One already on the table, according to Ilboudo of UNESCO, is the creation of an East Africa of Science Journalists Network. Others will form part of a plan of action due to be approved at the end of the meeting.

More will be known tomorrow.

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.

Improving science communication for Africa’s development

September 17, 2012

Ochieng’ Ogodo

Ochieng’ Ogodo
Sub-Saharan Africa regional news editor, SciDev.Net

Science journalism continues to gain grounds in Africa: from Nairobi to Cairo, Abuja to Addis Ababa and Johannesburg, something positive is being done by science journalists, their networks and other concerned organisations and bodies.

Addis Ababa is this week hosting a two-day science communication training workshop with the theme ‘Making Science and Technology Information More Accessible for Africa’s Development’.

The meeting organised by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the African Union Commission, in collaboration with the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ethiopian Association of Science Journalists, puts yet more emphasis on how science is important for Africa’s socio-economic transformation and democratisation.

Africa still suffers from myriad developmental challenges ranging from poverty, disease and ignorance. The need for dissemination of science and its tools for change for the continent cannot be gainsaid.

One of the bottlenecks to the development of science, technology and innovation sector in Africa and its contribution to the continent’s development is the communication gap among the major actors and players, both from within and outside the science sector.

Much as Africa still faces many challenges in producing home-grown science. There is high level of illiteracy and lack of appropriate communication tools. This is leading to scientific works remaining on the laboratories’ shelves instead of being tapped by those who need them most, the end-users.

The scarce funding for science and technology sectors, among others, can be attributed to poor understanding of the role of science and technology can play in development within the policymaking circles.

The media can play a great and critical role for Africa’s socio-economic development.

But the communication of scientific knowledge through mass media requires a special relationship between the world of science and news media, including the ability of journalist to report on complex issues in a way understandable by policymakers and the general public.

SciDev.Net will have three science journalists, including former editor David Dickson, Esther Nakkazi and myself to feed you with quality blog and news stories on the Addis Ababa meeting. Keep your eyes on this space.

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.

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