Finding a common ground for journalists and scientists

Journalists and scientists
Copyright: Petterik Wiggers/Panos

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[KUMASI, GHANA] Can you figure out how scientists view journalists who report on their research?
Here is my take from a two-day training workshop for media professionals and scientists on public engagement on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in Ghana.
Attended by journalists and scientists, the workshop served as a platform for better communication of WASH issues to audiences in easy-to-understand language.
The programme was organised last week (15-16 July) by Scientists Networked for Outcomes from Water and Sanitation (SNOWS) consortium headquartered at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) and the Centre for Science and Health Communication — both based in Ghana — through Wellcome Trust, United Kingdom.

My take is that sustained collaboration among research agencies and journalist associations could limit the mistrust and suspicion in science communication in Ghana and Africa as a whole.

Maxwell Awumah

The consortium, funded by the Wellcome Trust to the tune of 1.2 million British pounds (about US$1.9 million), comprises a university each in Denmark, Ghana, Kenya  Sudan, Uganda and two universities each  in South Africa and the United Kingdom, according to Samuel Nii Odai, director of SNOWS.
Odai said: “The consortium is poised to building a critical mass of sustainable local research and capacity in water supply, sanitation and environmental health across Africa, through strengthening African universities and research institutions for improved public health benefits.
“Scientists have a lot of research information but are unable to communicate the benefits of research findings [to the public], and need journalists for coordinated benefits.”
Odai, who is also the pro vice-chancellor of KNUST, added that journalists and researchers must chart new relations to open up and advance the frontiers of knowledge and developmental news, especially in water supply, sanitation and hygiene issues on the continent.
Bernard Appiah, instructional assistant professor at the US-based Texas A&M School of Public Health, said there is need for scientists to understand how the mass media operate and for media professionals to understand how scientists work to help build trust and promote effective strategies for communicating WASH issues.
I learnt that scientists want journalists to religiously report verbatim what they say. They demanded that journalists submit their stories to them for review and approval before publication.
But that pricked participating journalists, with some saying it amounted to direct infringement on their professional skills and ethics.
Ochieng’ Ogodo, regional coordinator of Sub-Saharan Africa English Edition for SciDev.Net, disagreed saying the practice is unethical and could mainly be possible selectively for parts of a story for clarity and facts. Only opinion pieces, he said, should be given back to expert authors for approval.
 “Scientists [need] to trust journalists to communicate in simple language for the masses to understand,” Ogodo added.

Ogodo advocates for including science communication as part of training for scientists, saying this could “defrost” the mistrust of journalists by scientists which often leads to some scientists’ reluctance to grant interviews or demand to see the final copy before publication.
My take is that sustained collaboration among research agencies and journalist associations could limit the mistrust and suspicion in science communication in Ghana and Africa as a whole, thus helping bring information and development to the doorstep of the masses.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.