Scientific facts are a curse, if you get them wrong

media training on covering science conferences
Copyright: AfricaRice

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Getting the facts right is the holy grail of scientific research and one of the pillars of science journalism excellence. But this ideal is not always guaranteed when it should be.

The mutual mistrust between scientists and journalists on the coverage of science will not be resolved soon enough as science journalists testified to during a media training workshop held in Yaoundé, Cameroon, ahead of the 3rd Africa Rice Congress 21-24 October.

A scientist once asked to see, rather read the article I had written following an interview before it was published. A fair request judged on the grounds of safeguarding facts and professional face but a No, No in journalism, save for exceptional cases.

The thoughts that raced in my mind were, 'OK so you do not trust me nor my skills' and that 'you are convinced of my high propensity to misquote or misrepresent facts'. Of course the scientist meant well in his request because defending credibility and protecting a reputation built over the years, sometimes painfully, is a common quest for scientists and journalists even though this is the source of often frosty relations between the two.

The common suspicion ought not to be if journalists perfected the habit of reading about scientific developments and arms themselves with necessary details before they interview scientists or cover science events, advises science journalist and SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa English Regional Coordinator, Ochieng' Ogodo, who led a media training session on covering science conferences and sourcing science stories.

"A journalist can share with scientist quotations for fact checking but not their unpublished story because journalism has its own demands that are different from those of scientists," Ogodo says.

Journalist, Martha Chindong from Cameroon, feels accessing scientists for quick comments is a challenge, especially for deadline-driven journalists that often the science story is never told fully.

Andre Bion, a journalist and staffer in the Communications Unit of the Cameroon Ministry of Science Research and Innovation, notes that science journalists sometimes face the challenge of wanting to get a scoop and having to wait for scientists to make public their work at the appropriate time.

"In certain circumstances, patience and persistence in getting the facts when the scientists are able to give the information and grant them the interview at the right time pays because scoops are not always the key issue and should not override the need to get the facts right," says Ogodo.

Cameroon radio and television journalist, Dora Shey, laments that some journalists prefer the shortcut of 'speech journalism' — writing the entire story from a speech delivered at a function — and highlighting only what the politician or scientist says without incorporating the voices of ordinary people, who are the end users and, perhaps, needs most the products of scientific developments.

"A key question of holding the 3rd Africa Rice congress in Cameroon is how this meeting will benefit the country and the people who are facing increasing rice prices. Science journalists have a duty to do balanced stories when reporting on science," says Shey.

While, journalists have to overcome the numerous huddles that characterise science journalism, how can scientists play their part in improving the way science is covered in Africa? That is food for thought.

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