[ENTEBBE] Africa is lacking in journalists able to understand and report science without distorting facts and misinforming the public, according to leading scientists from the continent, who have called for training to help close the gap.
Speaking at a meeting on biotechnology and biosafety in Entebbe, Uganda on 18-20 April, the scientists said media ignorance is largely to blame for Africans lacking accurate information on the opportunities and benefits biotechnology can bring.
Thomas Egwang, director-general of Medical Biotechnology Laboratories in Kampala, Uganda, recalled the time his organisation was host to an international virologist whose scientific message given at a press conference was severely distorted by the local media.
"I was embarrassed by what came out in the press the next day," said Egwang. "It was a massive distortion of what my guest had said. It's all due to ignorance of science issues."
The participants at the Entebbe meeting, mainly biologists and agricultural scientists from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, expressed regret that most media outlets do not train journalists in science reporting.
Egwang said the situation in Uganda was worse than in Kenya and Tanzania, where journalists have more opportunities to learn about science.
Uganda's national newspaper, The New Vision, used to have two journalists — Charles Wendo and Patrick Luganda — "who clearly understand science and have been leading writers", said Egwang.
"They've been effective, but unfortunately both have now left The New Vision for other jobs" said Egwang.
Luganda, who was present at the Entebbe meeting, said that to achieve accurate coverage of science issues in the Africa media, a pro-active approach was needed.
"It's no longer a choice but a must," said Luganda. "We need training programmes to create a critical mass of science journalists to fill the gap."
Luganda added that scientists should simplify their language and package information to the media in such a way that both journalists and the public can easily understand it.
Egwang told SciDev.Net that he is seeking funding for a 3-9 month training module that would teach journalists about biology and teach biologists about science communication. Its curriculum would include topics such as biotechnology and HIV/AIDS.
"It is easier to make a good science journalist out of a biologist, than to make a biologist out of a journalist with zero background in biology," he said.
Egwang added that being trained in science would inform science journalists and ensure their accuracy when writing about the subject.
"For instance, if a journalist attends a meeting on a controversial issue such as stem cell research or genetic modification without prior information on the subject and without some basic science training, such a journalist would not report correctly on them."