THE NEED FOR SCIENCE JOURNALISM

What is science, does it relate to human beings, have impact on the environment?.  Is it something that one has to go to school to learn?

Most journalists find it difficult sometimes, to disseminate science and its concepts into a language for the ordinary citizen to understand and appreciate its immense contributions toward human or environmental development.

Science journalism is a multi-disciplinary field requiring specialist knowledge and great skills.

Science, no doubts, has transformed our modern world deeply and spectacularly. It has shaped up every walk of life so much that it is impossible to escape its grasp for better or worse.

Explaining science is very important as journalists have to popularize it to capture the audiences’ interests.

Connecting science with the public is one of the biggest parts of a journalist’s work, and a huge challenge for a sometimes-neglected journalism specialization.

The emergence of COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly made waves for the importance of science journalists in the newsrooms as good interlocutors are key to communicating complicated issues to the broad audiences.

With new forms of storytelling from Instagram stories to podcasts to artificial intelligence-based tools now trickling into journalism, it is long overdue for science journalism to be more appreciated in the media landscape in Ghana.   

The coronavirus pandemic has, indeed, had a positive impact on the media and the way journalists cover science stories and choose their sources.

From a media perspective, COVID-19 has offered an opportunity to report science stories around the pandemic.

Whereas there are still more questions than answers about the pandemic, scientists are continually generating knowledge through research.

But, the speed with which scientists are carrying out the research and releasing new knowledge on COVID-19, comes with increased risks of publishing false information. 

Research is supposed to follow a systemic process with safeguards at every step. When research is done in a hurry, there is risk of collecting inaccurate information, making erroneous conclusions, and misleading the world with false recommendations. This requires journalists to be more scrutinous in reporting the science of COVID-19.

At the same time, the internet and social media are overflowing with twisted, fabricated or half-baked information on COVID-19. It is, therefore, important for the journalist to be able to differentiate between credible and false information.

With the pandemic affecting every aspect of people’s lives, it is easy for a journalist to pay attention to the social story than the science. Indeed, many stories focus on developments such as the number of new cases, deaths, socio-economic disruptions caused by COVID-19 and political controversies around the epidemic.

But, there is no such course as ‘science journalism’ in Ghana – or in most African countries. There is no formal training available to enable researchers or journalists to communicate about science with each other, or with the public.

This should change if science journalism in Ghana/Africa is to occupy its appropriate niche.

It is in view of this that it is a welcoming news that the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology(KNUST) has plans afoot to establish a degree program in medical journalism and communication to produce expert science journalists to report accurately, as reported by the Ghanaian Times in its July 10,2020 edition.

Professor Rexford Assase Oppong, Dean of the International Programs Office of the KNUST, dropped the hint when the University signed a five year Memorandum of Understanding with the Multimedia Group, on July 9, 2020, to train medical students in reporting journalistically.

The first batch of three medical students had already gone through the training at the Kumasi office of the Group.

In fact, the establishment of the program will offer a big opportunity to many journalists in the country to acquire the skills needed to report science with ease for the benefit of the public.

Science journalism should be delivered by journalists who are trained in science and scientists who are trained in journalism. This will enrich the public’s understanding of science from multiple perspectives and prevent blowing findings out of proportion and misleading claims from going viral.

Research Scientists Association of Ghana’s Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research could collaborate with the Ghana Journalists Association and Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences to provide additional impetus to increase science coverage.

Many media experts and journalists I have spoken to in Ghana, want to see a significant increase in science reporting over the next decade.

They said there was a need for greater public literacy about science, and that increasing the amount of science coverage would lead to better science outcomes for the country.

Chairman of the National Media Commission, Yaw Boadu-Ayeboafo said science reporting in Ghana was inadequate because many newsrooms did not even have specialized science reporters, and many scientific achievements received little or no publicity.

“This calls for specialization as it makes it easier to break down complicated issues to enable the average person to really understand the issues at stake and make informed decisions”, Mr Boadu-Ayeboafo indicated.

He called on media establishments in the country to create special science desks in their newsrooms for science related stories.

An Executive Director of Science and Technology Communicators of Ghana (SaTCOG), science association that trains journalists, Maxwell Awumah, on his part noted that science journalism is even crucial at this stage of COVID-19 because accurate information need to get to the population at the right time to effect a behavioral attitude change to guide them to contain the virus.

According to Mr Awumah, science journalism reporting is a specialized area and therefore, should compel journalism teaching institution s to mainstream exclusively the subject in an era of artificial intelligence and related fields, in order to reach out to the masses at the same eroding the perennial mistrust and suspicion between journalist and scientists.

BY KINGSLEY E. HOPE

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