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.