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Science journalism in Africa is making remarkable progress, with widespread improvements in the quality and quantity of science in the media, reports Esther Nakkazi.

[KAMPALA] African science journalists face many problems, including hostile editors who say that politics sells better than science, poor pay, lack of training, and a general lack of amenities, such as transport.

Their work is made harder by the disdain with which many scientists treat them.

Scientists complain that African science journalists are poorly educated, in science and often in journalism, that many do not prepare their interviews properly, and that they write inaccurate copy. Ethics are an issue, too: sometimes hard-up reporters ask scientists to pay them before they publish information.

David Dickson, founding director and former editor of SciDev.Net, sees another failing: "Too few science journalists spend time probing critically into science stories, tending to rely on material provided in press releases and by official spokespersons, rather than pursuing 'the story behind the story'".

Yet in a number of Western countries, science journalists are beginning to look like an endangered species losing their jobs and switching to other beats like business, politics, or sport to survive.

In Africa they are flourishing.

Onwards and upwards

Diran Onifade, president of the African Federation of Science Journalists (AFSJ) and publisher of the Nigeria-based AfricaSTI, an online science publication covering science and technology news in Africa, says the quality of stories he receives has risen since he set up the operation a year ago.

Jean-Marc Fleury, executive director of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) and holder of the Bell Globemedia Chair in Science Journalism at the Université Laval in Québec, Canada, describes progress as "remarkable".

After monitoring a range of African newsrooms, the WFSJ found that "in almost all … science coverage has been given more dedicated space, and we see more journalists specialising actively in reporting on it," says Fleury.

Science journalist

Africa's science journalism is flourishing

Flickr/Matt Biddulph

The advances are not uniform progress has generally been faster in Anglophone than Francophone Africa, for example but there are improvements wherever you look.

The Kenya-based Science Africa is on its 20th issue, and two of the country's daily newspapers, the Daily Nation and the Standard, cover science extensively. Mozambique's Noticias has a science page. The Ghana News Agency consistently features science news. Nigeria's This Day newspaper has clearly shifted towards more science reporting, and the country's Hot 98.3 FM has set up a science desk in Abuja and carries three minutes of science reporting in every major news bulletin.

Several factors have contributed to the change, not least the attention that more African governments are giving to science in their plans for development and education.

Scientists' trust in journalists has also improved. This was confirmed in a report last year by the Department of Journalism and Communication at Uganda's Makerere University, which said: "Their dealings with journalists have improved although the levels of such engagement still remain low, and may be limited to being sources of information, and occasionally, analysts".

The stronger relationship is based on journalists' need to support their stories with authoritative voices or experts: "Fortunately, some are always willing to talk".

And science journalists' associations have played a key role.  

The role of professional organisations

WFSJ runs a project called SjCOOP (Science journalism COOPeration) to coordinate peer-to-peer mentoring at a distance to help journalists develop a career of reporting on science-related issues.

The training is integrated within the daily newsroom activities of the journalists involved. Most of those mentored say the two-year process improved their science reporting, winning them recognition and raising their promotion prospects.

About 100 journalists have benefitted from the SjCOOP mentoring scheme since 2006, and the 21 Arab and African journalists trained as mentors have also expanded their capabilities.

"We are trying to create a critical mass of science journalists in Africa that will take the lead and help improve the situation," says Fleury.

Take the Uganda Science Journalists Association (USJA), for example. It is twinned with the Association of British Science Writers and has partnered with national programmes like the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology to establish an annual prize for science writing.

A media interview

The basic outlook for science journalism in Africa is one of optimism

Flickr/DFID – UK Department for International Development

Through the partnerships, USJA members can attend training programmes and forums where they can interact with scientists on a personal basis. This is a great benefit, says Henry Lutaaya, treasurer for USJA, because it improves journalists' scientific understanding.

But the associations have their critics.

"The problem I see in these associations is that funding is essentially from foreign institutions. And one can fear that they impose their way of seeing things, and not the way Africans see them," says Gervais Mbarga, a communications professor at the Université de Moncton in Canada.

Outlook remains optimistic

Mbarga says he sees little training for science journalism in local languages based on African science, "and very little is said about what our African people think ... I hope it is not another strategy for killing African thought.

"We should expect our capacities to be improved, not only in popularising Western science and its successes, but also in criticising, analysing, and proposing our way of seeing the world," he says.

A meeting of African science journalists in Nairobi, Kenya, in August, proposed that all government entities and research institutions should train and budget for working with the media, as well as ensure open access for all African research.

"This marks the beginning of a new era in science journalism. To a large extent, it is a pointer to the fact that Africa is increasingly recognising the importance of science and communication in developing their economies, and the challenges that entails," says Aghan Daniel, the conference convener and secretary of the Nairobi-based Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture, which supports science journalists and encourages networking.

The basic outlook is one of optimism. Justus Wanzala, secretary of the Kenya Environment and Science Journalists Association, says conditions are right for improving the quality of science reporting, and science-based information will increasingly reach the public.

Dickson also sees a bright future in the new generation of journalists.

"The growing enthusiasm among young journalists to cover science-related topics, particularly issues such as climate change, the control of HIV/AIDS, or the safety of genetically modified crops, as well as financial support from international organisations and aid agencies, are positive signs that the strength of the profession will continue to grow," he says.

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