Leading global science writers and researchers have called on African governments to adopt a triad of approaches to improve public understanding of science as a key factor in addressing public health emergencies.
Speaking at a webinar organized by Development Communications Network (DEVCOM), themed: “Beyond S/He Said: Basics of reporting in the context of scientific research,” panelists and participants at the hybrid meeting emphasised the need for journalists and media organisations to enhance the nexus between scientists and the general public to tackle policy implementation lapses at critical moments such as response to epidemics and other public health emergencies.
The Africa Science Journalism Webinar is aimed at creating linkages between scientific research institutes, the media and the general public for improved reportage and public understanding of science and public health issues in African countries.
Such linkages will prepare the continent for strategic responses to epidemics and other emerging infectious diseases like Ebola, COVID-19 and Monkeypox.
Speaking during the webinar, Paul Adepoju, a freelance science writer and Community Manager at the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) mentioned that “we need to be more prepared in our response to epidemics and in the dissemination of fact-based information to the public.”
He encouraged journalists to broaden their horizons and “make the best out of the resources you have and be open-minded. Science stories can make front pages in as much as your story is touching the lives of people.”
On her part, one of the facilitators, from SciDev.Net, Ms. Jackie Okpara-Fatoye, said that science journalism is a specialized field and “an integral part of journalism which should take the center stage in African journalism. Science stories are not necessarily the most explosive but have one of the greatest impacts.
“Many problems can be found in research papers as well as their solutions. Science reporting is solutions journalism,” she added.
Diran Onifade, former Vice President of the World Federation of Science Journalists and Publisher of Africa Science, Technology and Innovation (AfricaSTI) stated that the webinar was in continuation of the implementation of findings from a study jointly conducted by Development Communications Network (DevComs), AfricaSTI and partners in three African countries.
He also noted that the project, funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF (COVID-19: Strategic Media Engagement for Public Understanding of Scientific Research, Infectious/Non-Infectious Diseases), provides a platform for enhancing the triad of collaboration between the media (journalists/media institutions, scientists and the general public for proactive policy dialogue on science and development on the continent.
He emphasized the need to build a critical mass of journalists who are able to report science correctly.
Akin Jimoh, the founder of DevComs Network, Chief Editor Nature Africa and the principal investigator on the project, says the theme of the Webinar series was necessitated by findings that shows among others, the lack of coherent science journalism desks in media houses, lack of collaborations between scientists and the media to mention a few.
He said “even though there are interests in covering science with in-depth approaches there seems a self-limitation and a lack of a conducive environment to thrive. An all-encompassing approach is necessary to thrive. And is exists in a few countries like South Africa, but we need to do more.
“This is an area that some of us have dedicated our lives to and we cut across scientists, health promotion experts and non-governmental organisations and media platforms,” Jimoh said.
The DEVCOM founder also noted that “the Strategic Media engagement project is a collaboration between strategic media development organisations and leading research institutions, and media platforms in educating key journalists to ensure public understanding of science and public health issues.
“The approach relies on requisite research and access to factual information and analysis to inform the action of the general public as well as challenge misinformation and stigmatization,” he added.
Professor Adebayo Fayoyin a former Regional Communications Adviser for United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) described the webinar as an added value to public response to other emerging infectious diseases and pandemics, saying this will enhance behaviour change processes.
The project is built around a triad of strategic partners with audience composition including researchers/scientists, media institutions/journalists and civil society/media development organizations. The partner organizations on the project are Development Communications Network, Nigeria Heart Foundation, Zambia Media Network Against Tobacco, Media Diversity Centre, Nairobi, Kenya and Africa Science Technology and Innovation (AfricaSTI) News.