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.