Critics often say coverage of science and technology stories by African media is superficial and lackluster, and many African journalists agree.
Kejang Henry Atembeh is deputy news editor at the private broadcaster Canal 2 International in Cameroon.
"Many editors do not encourage science reporting," says Atembeh. "This is because science reporting is abstract and so it makes it difficult for some journalists to produce. Secondly, many journalists don’t have scientific background, and they’re contented with politics and culture and so on. So that’s why it’s given little attention."
The situation is not limited to Africa. Across the Middle East and in most developing countries, observers note a shortage of competent science and technology journalists.
Since 2006, the Canada-based non-profit World Federation of Science Journalists has been grooming a new generation of science and technology journalists in Africa and the Arab world. The vehicle is a program called Science Journalism Cooperation, or SJCOOP.
Officials say the goal is to create a bridge between scientists and the public; promote the role of science journalists as key players in democracy and development; and improve the quality of reporting to make science exciting to readers.
The training is free, and 81 apprentices were enrolled for the first session which was held from 2006 to 2009. It is a long-distance mentoring program, in which experienced science journalists tutor beginners.
The courses are conducted online in English, French and Arabic. The trainees stay in their normal working environment, receiving advice and support for specific writing assignments.
Through regular assessments, less successful trainees are dropped, while the more talented continue.
Olfa Labassi is the SJCOOP project manager. She says it’s beginning to pay off.
"Phase I was a unique opportunity," says Labassi. "During this phase, we graduated 32 science journalists, 22 of them won 45 awards, and eight started freelancing internationally. The second phase has new challenges, and we intend with the team we have now to inform the public and to make some impact and help policy-making in Africa and the Middle East."
And that’s not all. Fifteen graduates of the program received job promotions and others developed science programs for TV, radio and newspapers.
Olfa Labassi says the second group of students began their studies in September in Abuja, Nigeria, Bamako, Mali and Beirut, Lebanon.
Seventy-five journalists are in the second class and are working to become science writers in over two years.
Awareness is increasing across Africa that paying more attention to science and technology, especially at the level of policy-making, will help boost development efforts.
Akin Jimoh is coordinator of the project’s Anglophone group. He also works with the Nigeria-based Development Communications Network, or DevComs, which is a partner in the training.
Jimoh says by helping governments and the public understand complex science and technology issues, the new breed of journalists could help resolve a number of issues, like inadequate funding for research and distrust of genetically modified agricultural products.
"They’ll be trained in investigative science journalism in a way that they contribute to development, have influence on policy and also help individuals to understand science," he says. "The public needs to understand the relevance of science in their lives; governments need to understand the importance of science in improving development."
The World Federation of Science Journalists is an international NGO representing 41 associations of science journalists around the world and is encouraging the creation of more. It’s funded by several donors, including Britain’s Department for International Development and Canada’s International Development Research Center.