By Julie Clayton, first posted on www.wfsj.org, December 8 2008
Journalists often complain that scientists don’t wish to talk to them, but researchers in Uganda are planning to make such grievances a thing of the past with a new training programme that tries to break down communication barriers between journalists and scientists. The programme lies at the forefront of new moves by several scientific institutions in Africa to cultivate the media’s interest in science.
Dan Kaye, an obstetrician at the University of Makerere, Uganda, announced the plans at a Wellcome Trust workshop on “Science and community – engage to empower” at the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies in KwaZulu-Natal (2-5 December 2008). The meeting brought together more than 60 scientists, journalists, science communicators and actors from more than 15 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America.
The Ugandan programme, funded by a Wellcome Trust International Engagement Award, begins in January 2009 and runs for 2 years. In collaboration with the University of Makerere’s Department of Mass Communications, it includes workshops for a total of 90 journalists to get better acquainted with scientists and different areas of biomedical research such as HIV vaccines, TB and malaria research. Conversely, up to 150 scientists will be trained in how to communicate better with the media and with the public. In addition, public forums on topical subjects will take place every 3 months, bringing together journalists, scientists, policy makers and the public, with the aim of increasing media coverage of science and impact on policy.
“These [forums] are already being done in other areas such as politics and economics but are not used for discussing scientific issues and disseminating scientific research information,” says Kaye.
The new development was welcomed by Ugandan science journalist William Odinga, chair of the Ugandan Science Journalists Association (USJA).
“We’ve often been accused of misquoting and misrepresenting scientists and often we don’t understand what scientists are saying. We should now look at the interaction and process of understanding between scientists and journalists and build confidence between the two groups, because if a journalist is confident they’ll be able to ask a question and get the scientist to explain. So an opportunity for training is really good.”
Odinga and his colleagues recently organised the Ugandan Science Communication conference (24-26 November 2008 in Kampala).
The desire to find new ways to increase media coverage of science is not limited to Uganda. In South Africa, for example, press officers are developing new strategies to reach out to the media. At the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies, press relations officer Thulani Cele has negotiated media partnerships to gain air time in a local radio station, and space in a local commercial newspaper, in which to provide audiences and readers with news and information on scientific research. This does not go far enough, however, and Thulani points to the national commercial media as being the most difficult to engage.
“A challenge that needs to be addressed is enthusing media owners to address issues like HIV and population studies – not just politics and sport”, he notes.
Meanwhile, in Kenya, the media generally give little coverage to local science, according to Juliette Mutheu, external relations manager at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust programme in Nairobi. She cites a recent example of a press release that she issued to more than 300 national and international media outlets describing a study showing that as many as 90 million children in Africa are sleeping without protection of bednets, and were therefore vulnerable to the bites of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Of around 30 media outlets that reported the finding, only 10 were African, and most of these reported indirectly from an account in the New York Times rather than referring to the press release or contacting Mutheu directly for further information.
“I was devastated by this because this was meant for the African media. [The reports] only happened two weeks later – and there were lots of inaccuracies. They’re not paying attention to the research being done in their own country, so they need to get that information from their local research centres”.
Besides efforts to engage the media, Mutheu is pioneering science cafes in Kenya which are attracting both the public and journalists to meet and discuss scientific topics with scientists. Science cafes are also now becoming established in Malawi, Ghana, South Africa and Uganda.