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based in Nairobi, Kenya, said that the idea that a science journalist needed a good scientific background was “outdated”.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.