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Why African countries should have improved understanding of science – Writers, researchers

By Lizzy Carr, Bauchi

Leading science writers and researchers have called on African countries to integrate triad of approaches to improve public understanding of science as a key factor for the continent’s development.

The call was made at a webinar with a theme, “Beyond S/He Said: Basics of Reporting in the Context of Scientific Research” held recently.

The panelists and participants at the webiner 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.

 A freelance science writer and community manager at the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ), Paul Adepoju said science writers need to be more prepared in their response to epidemics and in the dissemination of fact-based information to the public.

 “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,” he said.

 One of the facilitators from SciDev.Net, Ms. Jackie Okpara-Fatoye stated 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 solution journalism,” she said.

Former vice president of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) and Publisher of Africa Science, Technology and Innovation (AfricaSTI), Diran Onifade said 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.

According to him, 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.

Onifade added that there is the need to build a critical mass of journalists who are able to report science correctly.

 “Looking at our society, we see a lot of issues requiring scientific attention; issues of food security, climate change, energy crisis, insecurity and the likes.

“We can’t just be heading wherever the grounds are taking us, because to every ground there is a string attached,” he said.

He enthused how can journalists use their own agenda settings, media organisations to nudge society research-wise and through some other means in this direction of areas that have become existential for Africa.

Founder of DevComs Network and Chief Editor at Nature Africa and the principal investigator on the project, Akin Jimoh said 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 noted that even though there were interests in covering science with in-depth approaches, there seems a self-limitation and a lack of a conducive environment to thrive stressing that an all-encompassing approach is necessary to thrive.

 “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.

“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 stigmatisation,” he said.

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 behavior 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).

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