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Demand for Science Reporting Growing in Africa

  • Ntaryike Divine Jr.

I’m sitting in the central newsroom at Canal 2 International television in Cameroon’s largest city Douala.

Flanking me around a large oval table are 20 journalists cataloguing the private broadcaster’s news menu for the day…

The arguments are intense. Such vigorous debates over which stories should be in the line-up are becoming more and more common.

Only a few years ago, there would have been a consensus to put the science report at the tail end of the day’s newscast. Back then, editors complained the stories were simply not sexy, and far too abstract to interest the audience.

But observers say they’re noticing the dawn of a new era for science journalism on the continent. Reports on climate change, epidemics, research and innovation are increasingly competing for headline space with politics and sports.

Kejang Henry Atembeh, an editor at Canal 2 International in Cameroon, said "stories about politics have become boring to a lot of people. They do not see much change happening and so are just fed up. The same sit-tight leaders are still in power, corruption and bad governance continue all across the continent."

Kejang said viewers are asking for more science stories, which are consequently getting more media attention.

"Take the recent floods across West Africa, " he said, "people are keen on knowing why it happened and how they could prevent a recurrence in the future. Farmers want to hear about research findings that enable them grow better-yielding crops. People are excited about medical breakthroughs announcing new drugs against malaria. Others want to hear about the latest cellphone technology and so on."

Elsewhere, others point to a growing interest among young African journalists to report on science. Also, the public and policymakers are increasingly recognizing the importance of science and telecommunication in fostering development.

Meanwhile, there are more opportunities for training in science journalism. Observers say these have resulted in significant advances in the quality of reporting, improving researchers’ trust in journalists.

Much of the praise for the spread of science journalism across Africa and the Middle East goes to the Canada-based World Federation of Science Journalists. Since 2006, it has trained close to 100 reporters from over 30 countries.

The vehicle is a free long-distance mentoring program, called Science Journalism Cooperation, or SjCOOP, in which experienced journalists tutor beginners via online courses in English, French and Arabic.

Maxwell Awumah is a journalist with the Ghana News Agency. He graduated with distinction from the second phase of the program at a ceremony held in Amman, Jordan in October.

"My competence," he said, "has been enhanced in science reporting, and I’m now well positioned to be able to see and sniff science from afar. It has given me the leverage to critique issues and set the right agenda, to follow policymakers and scientists so that in the end, we bring accelerated development in Africa."

SjCOOP alumni like Maxwell are increasingly impacting their colleagues in newsrooms across the continent and successfully thrusting science to the forefront of news shows.

Others are creating national associations of science reporters, recognizing the best journalists with awards and setting up dedicated science publications.

Akin Jimoh, a coordinator with the venture, says it’s having a domino effect.

"There are activities by national associations in terms of training and conferences. There are journalists coming together to work on one thing or the other. It’s something that will expand and expand," he said.

Despite such glowing optimism, science journalism in Africa still faces hurdles. Experts pinpoint science-unfriendly editors, difficult access to information and data sources, limited resources and dwindling foreign aid for training.

Jean Marc Fleury is president of the World Federation of Science Journalists. He said despite the challenges, there’s hope on the horizon

"It’s to keep the new young associations vibrant," he said. "To help them fundraise, find resources locally, create science journalism prizes, to build a critical mass so that eventually, there’ll be a buzz around science journalism in Africa and science journalists will bring ideas, initiate important debates so that good debates can be made."

Meantime, the most brilliant graduates from the SjCOOP Class of 2012 have been retained to work in a first-ever virtual newsroom for science reporting. Journalists will submit their story ideas and scripts to one of six editors in the Middle East and French and English-speaking Africa.

Their works will be broadcast in leading media outlets worldwide. It will provide a welcome source of knowledge to a continent depending on science to boost economic growth in coming years.

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