By Jean Pierre Afadhali

Science journalism is one of the more specialised reporting that is growing in Africa, but media organisations and journalists face challenges in covering complex scientific stories.

Health and the environment are some of the reporting areas that require science journalism skills to investigate, explain and tell relevant impactful stories. This often involves interpreting research studies, data analysis, and interviewing scientists and communities.

Recently, a Pan-African science and innovation organisation called Science for Africa Foundation (SFA Foundation) launched the inaugural Africa Science Journalism Awards (ASJA) to support science reporting in Africa.

The ASJA recognises excellence in science journalism on the continent and seeks to uplift credible health, science, and development reporting. The ceremony to unveil the 2023 winners took place in Lusaka, Zambia on the sidelines of the Conference in Public Health in Africa.

During the awards ceremony, journalists, scientists and other stakeholders discussed science journalism in Africa and beyond with a focus on challenges and its importance.

The chief operating officer at SFA Raynold Zondo said that Africa has challenges in writing scientific information, but it should turn them into opportunities for society.

Zondo added that SFA has decided to establish science journalism awards to encourage young journalists to embrace science reporting.

“Journalists should explain that science is finding solutions to the challenges in the world because through science life will be improved,” he said.

Challenges that hinder science journalism on the continent include, according to some media practitioners, skills gaps, funding, limited collaboration and interaction between journalists and scientists.

In a recent interview with Jamlab, Mary Mwendwa, a Kenya–based science journalist and editor for the website Talk Africa, a science and development news website, said science journalism just like any other form of storytelling, needs skills and creativity.

“In science reporting a journalist needs powerful storytelling skills, and the ability to understand and interpret scientific jargon,” Mwendwa explained. “With jargon sometimes a journalist needs clarification from scientists. Asking questions is part of our work, never assume anything in science reporting.”

Fellowships and workshops are some of the opportunities for aspiring and experienced journalists to gain new skills in science reporting. According to Mwendwa, one of the gaps lies in technological advancement for most local journalists.

“Many journalists do not squint themselves with the latest technology advancements. For example, using Excel sheets sounds basic but you still find journalists who are not able to use Excel sheets.”

A recent study on climate coverage in East Africa, conducted by the Earth Journalism Network, an organisation that supports environment reporting, revealed significant gaps and variations in the knowledge and opinions of journalists from all four East African countries on climate change. Climate change coverage requires scientific understanding to report some stories.

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Skills gap hinders science reporting

“From our findings, a staggering 97% of participants expressed the need for specialised training to decipher climate change jargon and its scientific intricacies,” said Jackie Lidubwi, a media trainer and researcher. “This underscores a pressing call to action for academic institutions, media houses, NGOs, and donors to collaborate and bridge this knowledge gap, enabling journalists to effectively communicate vital climate change information to the public.”

Winners in the ASJA receive cash prizes and also spend time at scientific institutions to learn about a particular research project and can report about it in their media organisations.

“By investing in the skills and knowledge of African journalists, we are preparing a way for the future where scientific communication becomes the basis for creating policies, promoting public understanding, and ultimately improving the lives of our communities,” explained Deborah-Fay, corporate and science communication manager
at SFA.

The Covid-19 pandemic has sparked the need for science journalism amid misinformation and disinformation on the pandemic specifically on issues such as vaccination.

For instance, the Africa Science Media Centre was established during the pandemic by Science Africa Limited, a media house specialising in science and health journalism and communication-based in Kenya, and its partners in September 2020 in Nairobi, Kenya. The centre’s objective is to improve the credibility of media reporting on emerging scientific issues, such as the coronavirus pandemic.

Mwendwa further stated that many local media outlets [in Kenya] do not have active science desks with dedicated editors to the desks and sometimes they have limited financial budgets too. “But, international news outlets embrace science reporting and they fully accept pitches when the story is good and meets their editorial standards,” the award-winning journalist added.


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