Science journalism drives development

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Communications Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane says science journalism must be supported as it delivers information to ordinary people who are affected by the daily discoveries and development made in this field.

“It is critical to have science journalists to educate our people about discoveries and areas of development. It [science] is not an area where you can have anybody do the work. You need people who understand the field and communicate about it effectively,” said Minister Kubayi-Ngubane.

The Minister was speaking at the third Science Forum South Africa which took place at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria on Thursday. The theme for the Forum was “Igniting conversation about science”.

Quoting Albert Einstein, Minister Kubayi-Ngubane said you do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.

With this quote, she illustrated the point that effective communication of science meant one should be able to explain it to ordinary people.

Conversations Africa Editor Caroline Southey, who facilitated the panel discussion on the role of science journalism, said the work done in this field does not receive enough coverage.

“South Africa invests a lot of money into research done by scientists. However, this does not reach citizens because of under reporting in science journalism,” Southey said.

The panel discussion also addressed the issue of economics of journalism and its profound impact on the field. Panellists agreed that science journalism is faced with underfunding as a result of the trim down of newsrooms and their budgets.

“Journalism and selling of newspapers is a business and businesses need to make money,” said freelance journalist specialising in science, Khatu Mamaila. He blamed the challenges faced by citizens as a failure of scientists to clearly articulate facts in layman terms.

Founding Editor of The Southern Eye in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Kholwani Nyathi, said the underfunding of science journalism affects the quality of the content produced.

“Underfunding of newsrooms means there are fewer skilled journalists. This means they cannot specialise as they must be all-rounders. When this happens it leads to poor reporting that lacks critique of the issues raised in the science topics.”

Another freelance journalist specialising in science, Mandi Smalhorne, who said science journalism is under threat, also called for the investment and funding to the field.

“We need to report on science to help citizens to understand policies and drive development,” said Smalhorne.

Freelance science journalist Sarah Wild reiterated that science journalists are important as they ask the critical and uncomfortable questions.

“It is very difficult to get a science story on the front page and that is because we pretend that science is apolitical. As scientists we have tried to pretend that we are not part of a larger political system and that is damaging to our stories because our responsibility as journalists is to our readers,” said Wild. 

In moving the conversation forward to finding solutions, Nyathi said media houses need to realise that they must invest in this niche field of journalism as it deals with everyday issues.

Nyathi made the point that citizens are affected by scientific issues on a daily basis and if clearly communicated in layman terms, science can help address these issues. -

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