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What science journalism is all about

 
Have you ever received a social media message about an alleged cancer cure and wondered whether it was true? Do you ever wonder why some fruits turn yellow or red when ripe? What about the sky, why is it blue and what lies beyond it? Do you ever wonder about the implications of heavy rains that occur during a supposedly dry season? What about innovations like blockchain technology, do you ever wonder what they are and what is in them for you, your family, community and country? What is the best policy for your government to adopt on genetically modified foods?
 
Many of the things human beings wonder about can be explained using scientific knowledge that has been generated through research and discovery over time. In addition, scientists are continually carrying out research to create new knowledge and technologies.
 
The practice of getting this scientific knowledge and reporting it in the mass media in a language that is comprehensible to a non-specialist is science journalism. Science journalists may either report about new research findings and innovations or use old scientific knowledge to explain a contemporary issue or trending topic. The science journalist has to simplify scientific information so their audiences may understand it, and make it relatable to their audience so they may pay attention to it. A science story focuses on the science rather than socio-political dimensions of the issue at hand. A news report about a tornado striking a place for the first time in 50 years and scaring onlookers is not necessarily a science story. A story about why the tornado has come at this point in time and what it means for the future is a science story.
 

Basic principles

Always be mindful that science journalism is based on scientific evidence. Journalists are bound by professional ethics and institutional requirements to verify information before publishing it. If people are going to use on your information to make important decisions about their lives, your source should be credible and you have to interpret and report it accurately.
 
In science journalism we report about scientific evidence and how it relates to human beings. You can report on fresh scientific evidence from a new study or use evidence from the past to explain current developments.
 
By themselves journalists may not know whether the information provided by a scientist amounts to credible evidence. Therefore, it is important to establish whether the information has gone through the scientists’ normal procedures for verifying evidence. In fact some scientists propagate false claims by rushing to post it online, giving the story to unsuspecting journalists or publishing it in bogus journals.
 
The acceptable way among scientists to announce their research findings is to write a research paper and publish it in a credible journal. The paper explains the background to the research, methods used, results, the implications of those results and the researcher’s conclusions.
 
Before publishing the paper, the journal gives it to other experts in the same field to see whether the research was carried out using appropriate methods and the results provide enough evidence for the scientist’s conclusion. This process is called peer review.
 
So before reporting about a scientist’s research findings a science journalist should ask whether it was peer reviewed and published in a credible journal. Lack of peer review does not necessarily confirm that the scientist’s research findings are false but it is better to err on the side of caution by not reporting about research findings that have not been published in a scientific journal. This principle applies whether you are reporting the research findings as news or using old research information to explain a current issue. If a scientist presents to you their research findings, ask whether the findings have been published in a peer reviewed journal. Similarly if a scientist cites research as the basis for their argument on a given issue, ask them whether the research was published in a peer-reviewed journal. Publication in a credible journal implies that the information has been reviewed by other experts in the same field and is agreed upon as credible scientific information. When a scientist chooses to not publish their findings in a peer-reviewed journal, you should wonder why.
 

Learning opportunities

There are many ways to become a good science journalist but all of them depend on the journalist’s interest in reporting about science and willingness to learn. You need a basic understanding of the scientific method and journalism principles and practices to be a successful science journalist. Developing countries have few courses that produce ready-made science journalists. Many of the successful science journalists in Africa are either journalists who learnt about science or scientists who learnt journalism. There are also great science journalists who were originally neither scientists nor journalists but were willing to learn both sides.
 
Here are 10 ways to learn science journalism:
 
1.    Take skills-based courses such as the Script Science Communication Skills for Journalists online course.
2.    Some universities such as Nasarawa State University in Nigeria and Makerere university in Uganda have embedded science journalism training in their curriculum while Stellenbosh University in South Africa has stand-alone science communication programmes at post-graduate level.
3.    Read available literature such as this and related practical guides.
4.    Practise: The more science stories you report the better you become.
5.    Join professional associations. The World Federation of Science Journalists has a list of member associations across the world. Join them to learn from other science journalists and get to know about opportunities.
6.    Attend conferences such as the World Conference of Science Journalists. Some conferences organisers may sponsor travel and accommodation costs for delegates who would not otherwise be able to attend.
7.    Seek fellowship opportunities such as Knight Science Journalism Programme at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
8.    Follow science news outlets online to learn from other journalists’ work and to keep up-to-date. You cannot know what is new if you don’t follow key scientific developments regularly. Similarly, follow scientific bodies and professional associations online viaTwitter, Facebook and blogs.
9.    Just start. You may have been covering other beats and you want to start reporting science news. Don’t wait. One of the best forms of training is the day-to-day feedback you get from an editor when you pitch and submit a story.
10.  Find a mentor and role model to guide you.
 

Wondering what to write about? Here are 10 ways to get story ideas:

1.    Look out for new research findings, for example the story Air pollution cuts worker productivity was based on a new research finding. You can get to know about new research findings by subscribing to science news alerts such as Eureka Alert and AlphaGalileo, checking the websites of credible scientific journals or subscribing to the mailing lists of research institutions.
2.    Keep wondering about the things you see, feel or hear and look for the scientific explanations. Science journalist Maggie Villiger explains this well in her article Science of everyday life: 5 essential reads. Her story, Using your phone on a plane is safe – but for now you still can’t make calls, is an example. She started by wondering why people are asked to switch off their phones inflight. Then she looked for a scientist to explain how cell phones work and how that might be a problem during a flight. The result is an informative and interesting story.
3.    Similarly you can start by wondering about the scientific explanation to an incident or trend, for example The surprising reason why some Latin Americans have light skin, or Total lunar eclipse on Jan 20-21 will be the last until 2022
4.    Look out for local, national and international policy developments related to science, for example Indigenous people to have say in UN climate policyAfrica needs to be firm against toxic waste dumping.
5.    Look out for successful practical application of science and technology, for example weather forecasts and implications.
6.    What’s happening to scientists, for example Q&A: 'I emigrated when my lab was turned into barracks’. Similarly Kenya approves limited GM maize release is a policy-related science story.
7.    Scientific debates and controversies make news, for example UN warns climate change impacts security, US ignores link.
 

Where to get the information

 A good science reporter must know how to get news, and from where.
  • Subscribe to science news alerts such as Eureka Alert and AlphaGalileo. These will deliver to you press releases based on newly published journal articles.
  • Meet and greet: in reporting about science, like any other field of journalism, you need both human, paper and digital sources of information. Therefore, scientists are going to be your important sources of information, views and technical advice. Arrange to meet either face-to-face or online and exchange contacts. When you need information from scientists, you will be more successful with those you have met before. Your success in science journalism is largely influenced by your ability to network with scientists. Request them to alert you when something interesting happens in their spheres. You will also need them when you wonder about something and you need a scientific explanation.
  • Networking doesn’t have to be formally arranged. Every time you meet a scientist is an opportunity to introduce yourself and exchange contacts, for example at a scientific meeting or event.
  • Subscribe to science news sources either directly or through other channels such as Google Alerts. In journalism stories are rarely exhaustive. Virtually every story will leave you wondering about something, for which you can look for answers.
  • Attend scientific meetings to gain more knowledge and broaden your network of scientists who can always give you information.
  • Look up people whose names feature in scientific developments, or those affected by circumstances reported about.

Advice from senior editors

In March 2018 the Script project held an editors’ round table during the Next Einstein Forum Global Gathering in Kigali, Rwanda to discuss the way forward for science journalism in Africa. Below are some excerpts:
 
Nick Perkins, moderator:
Science journalism is not just about research. It is about how science affects our lives. We need to both humanise the science and scientify the human story. In humanising science you have the science and bring human beings into it. In scientifying the story you have a human story and you bring science into it.
 
Bothina Osama, SciDev.Net:
We have a low number of journalists who are dedicated to science reporting. The problem is not audiences. The problem is, can we package science in an interesting way? If you tell the story to your grandma and she can understand it, that is a good story.
 
It is not enough to train. Journalists need mentorship to be able to do a good job.
 
Andrew Meldrum, Acting Africa Editor, The Associated Press:
I would like us to not have science in an ivory tower and use words that people don’t understand. I would like us to translate science into people’s lives, for example can we find a patient in South Africa suffering from multi-drug resistant TB and we tell their story. I would like science stories to be the compelling narrative that people want to read.
 
David Aduda, Nation Media Group, Kenya:
Not every journalist needs to be a science journalist but they all need to have some concept of science journalism. And then we have the specialised science journalists.
 
Juliet Masiga, The Conversation Africa:
If you go and tell the editor about artificial intelligence they will not listen. If you tell them the scientist is teaching machines to speak my language they will say wow!
 
Haruna Idris, Radio Nigeria:
We need to focus on the science that affects people directly. There is need to explain how a particular science affects people. The ordinary person wants to know how he can bring light into his life, he does not want the technical jargon about how his battery works.
 

Finding work opportunities

A science journalist can work as either a freelancer or staff writer, with either media outlets that specialise in reporting science news or mainstream media outlets that have science-related sections. Examples of specialised media are SciDev.NetScience MagazineNew ScientistNature News and PLOS Research News. A number of mainstream publications such as BBCReuters, Kenya’s Daily Nation and The Guardian of Nigeria have science-related sections that may go under different names such as Science, Technology, Environment or Health. Mainstream publications may also publish science-related stories of public interest even when they don’t have a section labelled Science.
 
Most science journalism freelance opportunities and jobs are given on the basis of ability to report a good story rather than formal qualification. Most editors are likely to ask for samples of your previous work before they give you an opportunity.
 

Conclusion

With a growing number of scientists and an increase in research expenditures, the world today is graced with more research findings than ever before. Science journalists have the noble task of telling comprehensible and relatable stories so individuals and policy makers may use the knowledge to make informed decisions at personal or policy levels. There is no shortage of science stories to tell but there is a shortage of journalists who can tell the story well. There is no shortage of editors who can potentially take science stories but there is a shortage of journalists who can present the science in such a way that the editor sees an important and fascinating story. Now is the time to learn how to do it.
 
Dr. Charles Wendo is the Training Coordinator for SciDev.Net 
 

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