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Africa’s science reporting

Authors: Davies Mbela, Deborah-Fay Ndlovu & Juliette Mutheu-Asego. The authors are affiliated with Science for Africa Foundation.

Science journalism is of paramount importance in Africa, particularly amidst the continent’s numerous development challenges and the pervasive era of misinformation, as exemplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. It serves as a critical conduit for disseminating accurate and timely information about scientific research, discoveries, and technological advancements. This information is indispensable for policymakers, government officials, and development organizations as they seek to address pressing issues like poverty, healthcare access, climate change, and food security with evidence-based decision-making. Additionally, science journalism plays a vital role in fostering trust in science and institutions, empowering communities, and combating misinformation, which is crucial for public health, sustainable development, and building a resilient and informed society in Africa.

Moreover, science journalism’s capacity to raise awareness about environmental and climate concerns is pivotal in a continent highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. By showcasing local climate research and promoting sustainable practices, it can drive community engagement, sustainable resource management, and adaptation efforts. In summary, science journalism in Africa is a linchpin for knowledge dissemination, innovation, and public empowerment, serving as a beacon of reliable information amid the complex landscape of development challenges and misinformation. It holds the potential to catalyze positive change, inspire innovation, and guide the continent towards a more sustainable and informed future.

According to published baseline study done by the Africa Science Desk (ASD) a programme established to build the capacity of science journalists in Africa, participants across funded countries Kenya, South Africa, Senegal and Nigeria showed an inclination towards more coverage for health and well-being from Kenya and Senegal while South Africa felt that water and sanitation and food security required more prioritisation. Nigeria argued that all the topics needed more science coverage.

The survey further established that most participants across Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya didn’t interact much with science stories while Senegalese participants couldn’t decipher if they were engaging with a science story or not in their reading. The highest engagement of science content came from Kenya and South Africa through television, radio and social media while Nigeria and Senegal interacted only occasionally with science stories with more dependence on newspapers.

The late Mohammed Yahia former executive editor of Springer Nature in the Middle East and former president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, in an interview with SciDev in 2019 highlighted the precarious position science journalism find itself in recent times. Due to the rapid changing ecosystem challenges like fake news emergence, alternate facts and a rising anti-science climate.

These barriers are further exacerbated by less funding allocation by media houses to science coverage, lack of training opportunities for African journalists in science reporting, and mentorship of budding journalists by their seasoned seniors in navigation the science ecosystem.

Through its objective of Increasing the quantity of science stories and improving coverage of science by funding journalists to do their research, ASD Africa funded African science journalists to write about science, while pairing them with senior science journalists drawn renowned media houses and organisations regionally and globally who equally served as mentors. As a result three journalists were recipients of various media awards which ignited conversations about science and promoted  a prompt in policy changes while generating interest in science coverage; Dorcas Wangira a Kenyan journalist was awarded the prestigious Michael Elliot Award for Excellence in African Story telling for her story the App and the Cut  which ran on KTN news, Wesley Langat contributed to the change of policy in procuring quality seeds for maize farmers by the government of Kenya as result of his story Finding fakes: Mobile phones help detect counterfeit seeds in Kenya Sibusiso Biyela of SciBraai South Africa spurred interest in international publications leading to more commissions on his story South-African- ship robots uncover future climate change .

Science reporting in the African continent holds immense importance in fostering progress, resilience, and sustainable development. With Africa facing a multitude of challenges spanning healthcare, environmental sustainability, agriculture, and technology, science reporting plays a pivotal role in disseminating accurate and accessible information to policymakers, researchers, and the public. It bridges the gap between the scientific community and society at large, enabling evidence-based decision-making, inspiring innovation, and driving solutions to pressing issues.

Recently concluded Africa Science Journalism Awards (ASJA) which was hosted by the Science for Africa foundation at the side-lines of The annual International Conference on Public Health in Africa CPHIA conference in Lusaka, Zambia showcased the vital role that well-informed journalism plays in addressing Africa’s complex challenges’ focuses on capacity building for African journalists, by funding journalists to conduct in-depth research and providing mentorship from seasoned professionals, with an aim of elevating the standard of science reporting. The awards not only celebrated journalistic excellence but also aimed to spark meaningful conversations about science, driving policy changes and generating interest in science coverage.

This initiative not only contributes to a more informed public but also empowers journalists to navigate the intricate landscape of the science ecosystem, ensuring that accurate and impactful scientific stories are brought to the forefront.

A quote from Quentin Cooper, of BBC Radio 4’s Material World in a recently published abstract by F1000 research reads “Science values detail, precision, the impersonal, the technical, the lasting, facts, numbers and being right. Journalism values brevity, approximation, the personal, the colloquial, the immediate, stories, words and being right now. There are going to be tensions.”

Furthermore, in an era rife with misinformation, science reporting serves as a critical defense against the spread of false information, empowering individuals with the knowledge needed to make informed choices about their health, environment, and overall well-being. By amplifying the achievements of African scientists, highlighting local innovations, and promoting scientific literacy, science reporting becomes a catalyst for positive change, ultimately contributing to a more prosperous and informed future for the continent.

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