Copenhagen: over to you, men and women of the press

With 5,000 journalists accredited by last week to cover the United Nations Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, this will be one of the most journalists’ populated global meetings in many years.

The Bella Center where the fifteenth edition of the Conference of Parties  Conference (COP 15) meeting takes place starting today through to December 18 is a magnificent piece of architectural masterwork that will see in excess of 15,000 people negotiating, haggling, cutting deals, cursing and some even losing hope.

It will be busy time for members of the fourth estate. With over a hundred presidents expected to attend including global political rock star US president Barack Obama-and he has roots in my country Kenya where his father hailed from, a horde of ministers, negotiators, more than 20,000 Non-Governmental Organisations in attendance, story angles will be as varied as it will be confusing for some of us.

The negotiations will sometimes-and maybe most of the times-be covered in hard and heavy technical and legal communication that some of the journalists will be scratching their heads at what the meaning or the importance is.

Sometimes they will be behind closed doors yet the umbilical cord with which the bigger world population will be feeding from the Bella center is the team of journalist at the meeting.

The topics will be as wide-ranging as the people attending and countries and groups/interests represented. There will be the climate change politics playing out between the big boys like the United States of America on the one hand and emerging economies like China and other developing countries on other hand.

For the next two weeks words like adaptation, mitigation, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries, cutting down of greenhouse gas emissions (targets for industrialised countries, what major developing countries will do about growth paths and limiting emissions) will be abundant. Industrial development and attendant environmental injustices, climate change refugees, compensation will be some of the catchphrases.

Scientists will be seeking to convince that without cutting of emissions from human related activities that have resulted in global warming and dangerously beyond the pre-industrial age, socio-economic and environmental disaster is now staring us in the face.

Journalists will be frantically up and about for stories, they will be stalking delegates, liaising with reputable NGOs-although these NGOs have interests-for insights into behind closed door talks and covert manouvers.

Press men and women can be very impatient but here the massive security detail is something you can’t avoid and delays on queues will almost be a must each passing day. The terrifyingly cold Europe weather at this time of year is another load in their bag of hassles.

This notwithstanding, work has to be done. The premium attached to this meeting can be deciphered from some of the mass media establishments with sending a team of journalist. Both the small, medium and big media house in Copenhagen. Over to you, men and women of the press.

Fight for it

Standing firm for science journalism is not an easy task. But some of the seasoned and upcoming environment and science journalists in Kenya believe it is something worth doing – and they are doing it.

One of their most considered desirable way of doing this is by coming together. That’s why the formation of the Kenya Environment and Science Journalists Association has been hailed as a revolution in Kenya.

“The coming together of Kenyan practicing science journalists to form an association was indeed a good happening to our country this century as it gives us a platform for sharing and setting standards for bringing to the readers and listeners well-researched and simplified stories concerning science”, says Duncan Mboyah, the organising secretary of the association.

Secondly, formation of an association is good because science is not taught, only mentioned in the Kenyan journalism colleges, and through the association science journalism is set to be lifted through collaborations and partnership to enable journalists to gain more knowledge through mentorship and fellowships.

Mboyah has qualms with politics being given exceptional prominence in the media, yet it is not the only life segment that affects the common people. “This is the only way out to help mainstream science issues in the mainstream media.”

Standing firm for science journalism, he continues, will help in educating the public on matters that touch their daily lives and are not being given prominence currently due to lack of commitment by journalists and lackadaisical attitude by editors.

Again, if you want to wet the appetite of upcoming journalists to take up science writing seriously, mentoring through an association is a good catalyst. The World Federation of Science Journalists, he argues, has shown the way and KENSJA is the future platform for hosting talks on crucial debates in Kenya.

By coming together, journalists are in a position to promote science journalism as they will develop resource centers that could avail the much needed tools of the trade. They will share ideas and may even jointly decide on story angles.

Science journalism needs to be taken seriously to help inform the masses on the goings-on in the science world and also deserves support from the government and other organisations since it is key to understanding better the universe, something only possible through concerted efforts of the journalists.

Here journalists are a fundamental link between scientists who speak in very difficult language to most of the masses. Since some are semi–illiterate, they will not understand.

“Bringing together journalists to form KENSJA was the best move that has ever happened in this country, especially for those with passion for it”, says Mary Wangari, a member.

To her it makes them learn the real world and how they are being affected by real things such as climate change, new emerging health issues and new technologies, and, of course, passing the information on to the public.

Science journalists need to come together and create a platform for sharing their experiences, new things; to interact and to further the development of reporting on new advances, setbacks and controversies in science.

Dealing with a specialised kind of writing it entails research, interest and a lot of concentration to break the usually jargon laden language into simple language for the readers even though it is not being given the priority it deserves in our print and electronic media. Fight for it.

What scientists think about you

Recently, in the company of some members of our organisation, The Kenya Environment and Science Journalists Association [KENSJA], I attended a workshop in Nairobi on Making an Impact: Research and Communication. It dealt with communicating more effectively with policy-makers and key audiences, engaging with the media, innovative communication tools one can use, impact making and why research communication is important.

It brought together researchers, communication officers, science journalists and policy makers and had very interesting and stimulating interactive sessions. But my interest here is on what these other people think and feel about science journalism and science journalists.

Both communication officers and researchers at the meeting felt there is need for a paradigm shift in which the media is engaged right from the inception of projects through research phases to outputs; that this will give insights and leverages for powerful, accurate and authentic stories.

But there were unpleasant views on science journalists and science journalism. In a terse comment one researcher said “journalists like sensationalism.” They blow things out of proportion; they like reporting stories or events in a way that makes them seem as strange, exciting or as shocking as possible.

Some story headings are tailored in a way that cause great anxiety, even where there is none; and in some cases the headlines do not even reflect the content when you go through the lines.

The question that science journalists may ask in this respect is, how sensational is a sensational story or headline?

We were also ‘accused’ of distortion and sometimes making wrong references to particular tools that a research work has yielded or even making wrong institutional references or their mandates.

One communication officer remarked: “sometimes you go with the journalists to function and what they report tomorrow is absolutely different.” Journalists, some said, are interested in increasing sales for their organisations and twist stories to suit this thus leaving out the crux of the matter they are reporting on. They miss the point.

Others even wondered if there are good science journalists. “Good science journalists are difficult to find,” a participant remarked. Sometimes journalists go for interviews when they are absolutely unprepared; they have no background information and start fumbling in front of interviewees. The reporting, therefore, comes out shallow and of no great use to consumers. It is always very disappointing to scientists and researchers when journalists fail to understand what they are saying or doing, which may reflect badly on their reputation once the story is in the public domain – something they are extremely keen on.

As if that is not enough, most editors have scanty knowledge about science reporting and as the chief gatekeepers of what goes out, they do a shoddy job. Even more interesting was the accusation that some journalists demand for enticements before they can do a story.

Some of them add no value and colour to a story and will simply pick what is in the press release. “Add value by investing in the story through having background information, having interviews with other independent people or organisations dealing with or opposed to the same issue you are about to do story on,” said one participant. These are some of the things they think about you.

Establishing space for science journalism

One of the potentially off-putting experiences for a science journalist is establishing space for science journalism. This, in most circumstances, is more discouraging to those budding as freelancers and folks in mainstream non-specialised media. Often it requires one to be an intelligent, tough go-getter.

But there are several ways, I reckon, with which this can be overcome, though not overnight. Science journalists need to have a discussion with senior editors to learn how the existing media covers science. No doubt, for a journalist, they are the first audience of any story idea or a written piece.

The science journalist needs to convince editors that most science stories are in fact stories about people, society, politics or the economy.

They also need to have meetings (introducing themselves) with the key persons at the leading science based organizations. This does not necessarily mean that you have to report the way they want, but in so doing you get credible sources of stories.

Top officials at the government ministry responsible for science and technology should also be in the loop. The researchers and the government officials will, for example, keep the journalist updated on the latest development or upcoming meeting.

Equally important is the creation of opportunities for scientists and journalists to meet, learn about each other and understand how each works. This guarantees new story ideas for a science journalist.

Persuading editors, scientists and authorities to appreciate the role science plays in economic transformation for the betterment of the country is critical to creating the much needed room for science journalism.

For instance, a science journalist in Africa should find it imperative to clearly explain that the bulk of current initiatives aimed at lifting the continent out of the backwaters of development require research and development as a tool to overcome poverty and disease, among many other ills choking it.

Only through appreciating the potential that science has in socio-economic development can owners of publications and authorities understand why science journalism needs space in the media.

Collaborating with key persons at the leading science based organizations makes the journalist trustworthy and reliable. It helps create a good environment for covering science as both parties see each other as key partners in sustainable development.

The benefits of collaboration are enormous; you do things as a team and the need for collaboration between journalists, researchers and government officials cannot be emphasized enough – it is of paramount importance to achieve development.

Society at large can benefit from the fruits of science but for this to happen people need to understand and support science, and journalists act as a bridge between science and society. This does not only inform the public but creates interest and respect for science. An association of like-minded individuals is critical in the fight for space for science journalism.

But in all of this a journalist has to strive to remain independent and must not be sucked into becoming a handmaid of those in the science world.

Why science journalism is challenging yet thrilling

Hard and uninteresting stuff! Not really. Quite often a science journalist comes across research papers couched in difficult boring language – the sort of an essay you are tempted to only see as meant for the converted. But a keen look at the topic, even from a short abstract presentation, gives you an idea into the importance of the subject matter to the ordinary folks.

Researchers may not have any problems with the dull and jargon-laden work but for a journalist that is your enemy. Writing an interesting story means humanizing the research project, showing clearly what it means to the public in a carefully and accurately written piece.

These are some of the things that make covering research in science thrilling. For instance, if you can find what the discovery or the theory means to the average person then you are duty bound to give exciting straight news, which may be followed by a more in-depth feature giving all the necessary details.

Science journalism deals with covering of a professional field and the journalist must avoid falling into the trap of presenting his/her story meant for the pubic in jargon. It has to be in a language understood even by the less erudite readers – an easy, soft yet very catchy, an informative read.

Research projects are time and again designed to fulfill specific basic and practical needs. But the secrets of many basic projects are not always presented in a ready-made write up, in the form of a press releases or in the work itself. As a science journalist, you must seek to interpret the nature and findings of the project. And also to give its practical value to the people without sensationalising it, in a manner that preserves its crucial matter-of-fact worth.

The journalist also has to contend with interviewing of a researcher[s], some of whom may not be interested in publicity. Some may even turn antagonistic towards publicity. The crux of the matter has over the years, mostly, been poor handling of scientific news through inaccuracies and sensationalism and that publicity will mean nothing if itʼs going to damage his/her professional career.

The science journalist must establish himself with the researchers, earning their confidence through accurate interpretation of works. This should also be done with institutions and organizations that scientists are working for or affiliated to.

But as a journalist it is equally important to discuss the research with other researchers and relevant organizations in that area of expertise, as it may be dangerous to rely only on one person as a source of information. Corroboration is a key ingredient in science journalism. These are some of the components that make science journalism challenging yet thrilling and fulfilling.

Science journalism in Africa

Many a times I have been asked about the viability of science journalism in Kenya and Africa at large from both journalists – the ones practicing it and journalists in other areas like business and politics – and folks outside the profession.

To many skeptics, science and its products like research, patents, innovations are not yet developed in Africa and could therefore offer very little for one to continuously put his skills and energy on such an area of coverage and also make a living out of it.

Out there, the continent could be well known for civil strife like in the Democratic Republic of Conge, Darfur in Sudan, Northern Uganda, mismanagement of public affairs at the highest levels of leadership like in Zimbabwe, corruption, the HIV/Aids scourge of which Sub-Saharan Africa is the global epicenter – wow! The list is long, but not for scientific advancements in different spheres of life.

The skeptics are not entirely mistaken. True, Africa needs to build her own biological, physical and chemistry sciences and use that knowledge at all levels of life but that doesn’t mean there is nothing going on. Well, a lot in science and research is going on in Africa which remains very invisible. And a lot also needs to be done, still more, which is what makes science journalism even more imperative in Africa, and the rest of the developing world.

But it isn’t easy to ply science journalism in this part of the world. Most news channels – print, audio, visual, online – have very little space allocations for environment and science stories. Worth noting is that most journalists in this segment are correspondents whose monthly monetary gains are pegged on the number of stories published, and very few successfully ‘compete’ for space.

This has in fact forced some to abandon science journalism and take to other areas of the profession that enjoys favours with chief gatekeepers of specific media establishments or opt for more sustaining areas outside the profession.

The research institutions and government departments make life miserable for science journalists by the lack of well defined infrastructure and policies that ensures fast and effective facilitation of the channeling out of information and within the shortest time possible given the high perishable nature of news. How many institutions are computerised and give you access to information only at the touch of a mouse?

In the age of globalisation exacted upon us by the Information and Communication Technology wizardry, there is much new knowledge pouring from millions of research projects and studies around the world that push the boundaries of man’s knowledge to new heights, almost daily.

The changes are frequent and so specialized and difficult if not absolutely impossible for a lay person to understand. As long as science or scholarship remains enshrined in technical language and laden with heavy jargons it will need specially trained reporters who can communicate with scientists and help translate the new developments accurately and clearly for the less erudite readers who need the information most to thrive-or try to – in their day-to-day lives.

For instance, reporting on a research project is quiet often an assignment largely different from any other given to a journalist. He/she will face three challenges; the researcher[s], research project and the accurate and interesting interpretation of the project to the various publics. And such specialised trainings needed for a creditable job are very scarce for science journalists in Africa and most of the developing world.

The first audience of a journalist is the editor who he/she has to explain his story line to hoping for a hearing and objective evaluation of the intended piece[s]. You will explain your lead, tie-back and additional features and details to the lead paragraph. But in most cases the editors’ themselves have scanty grasp of the various scientific issues unfolding in their societies and the world at large. They, therefore, become the bulwark against the practice of science journalism.

A problem facing most science journalist also involves the “necessary” cooperation of the scientists and some of their organisations with the media. Some are extremely sensitive to criticisms from the media; they often shun journalists and institutions decline to provide information needed for accurate and balanced reporting.

At the Land Ocean Interaction in the Coastal Zones [LOICZ] Open Science meeting in Egmond aan Zee in The Netherlands a professor in coastal science, after listening to my presentation on The Media and Environmental Protection, declared it was not their duty to disseminate information but to do research and they have absolutely nothing to do with media. This clearly illustrates some of the dilemmas faced by science journalists all over the world.

The inability to make enough money from the practice of science journalism accounts for the dearth of what have become basic tools like laptops among this lot of people. These are just but a few. The hurdles are many but despite these science journalism still remains an exciting practice.