Learning by doing: Experiences of writing for SciDev.Net
A survey of our contributors suggests improvements, but has also highlighted the challenges of science reporting in developing countries.
Regular SciDev.Net visitors will know that we rely heavily on reports commissioned from, or sent to us by, science journalists across the developing world. It's on-the-spot reporting like this that allows us to provide a bottom-up perspective on the issues we cover — something that is often missing from government reports or academic analyses.
Last autumn we carried out a survey of our freelance contributors, collecting responses from 62 journalists. Although neither particularly comprehensive nor scientific, the survey provided some heartening data on how our interactions with journalists in developing countries have improved their professional skills and helped make them more aware of why science is important for development.
But the survey has highlighted some of the challenges facing science reporting in developing countries. It has also provided us with valuable feedback on how we can improve our own efforts to help journalists overcome these difficulties.
Writers are benefitting
The good news is that many of our regular contributors report that writing for us has helped them professionally.
For example, almost 70 per cent of survey respondents said that writing for SciDev.Net, as well as the editorial feedback we give, has improved their written English skills. As one respondent put it, "I have learnt to be economical with words and not use jargon".
A slightly lower proportion (58 per cent) said that writing for us had improved their interviewing skills. Hopefully this reflects the importance we place on asking people with appropriate knowledge and insights to comment on scientific or technological developments.
An even more rewarding result was that 71 per cent of the journalists said that writing for SciDev.Net had increased their knowledge and appreciation of science. Clearly, governments wishing to develop scientific literacy among their electorates have potential allies in journalists — but they must help provide training and support so journalists can do an effective job.
Still more to do
We have also learnt some important lessons from the survey results. For example, many contributors demanded more detail on why we make editorial changes to the material they submit.
And the survey confirmed that many science journalists in the developing world feel isolated in their work, and would welcome greater contact with professional colleagues in other countries. Just over two-thirds said they would join a social networking group of SciDev.Net contributors, and many already belong to other groups, such as the Research and Media Network.
There was also a strong demand for more professional training. Our own capacity-building workshops, as well as our joint training initiatives with the World Federation of Science Journalists, help here. But much more needs to be done, for example by introducing science-writing courses into journalism departments in developing country universities.
Overall, the survey has given us useful ideas for improving our commissioning process, from how we respond to pitches and provide editorial feedback to the need to respect cultural differences in journalism across the world.
Perhaps the most worrying finding was the practical difficulties science journalists face when preparing articles for us (and, presumably, for other national and international publications).
For example, 39 per cent of the respondents said that persuading government sources to comment on news stories was often difficult, and a further 56 per cent said that they sometimes faced this problem. Less than one in ten said that they never did so.
Equally worrying is that half of the respondents sometimes had difficulty persuading press officers to help them access information, while 18 per cent said that they often encountered this problem.
And more than two-thirds said that scientists were sometimes unwilling to be interviewed, supporting anecdotal evidence that the scientific community needs to be more aware of the importance of communication.
We will help where we can, but these are issues developing countries must tackle themselves. In particular, local scientific communities must respond to calls for greater transparency and accountability from the public that funds their research. As our survey has confirmed, there is still a long way to go.
We are developing new procedures to reflect some of the survey's conclusions and respond to people's comments. We will be sharing these with our contributors shortly. Anyone who would like to find out more about writing for us is invited to contact one of our regional co-ordinators, or the news editor, Aisling Irwin, on [email protected].