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African Countries Urged To Improve Public Understanding of Science

by Christiana Gokyo, Jos

African countries have been called upon to integrate a triad of approaches to improve public understanding of science as a key factor, for the continent’s development. 
 
At a webinar, “Beyond S/He Said: Basics of reporting in the context of scientific research,” panelists and participants emphasized there was the need for journalists and media organizations 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 was 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, held on Tuesday.

Such linkages will prepare the continent for strategic responses to epidemics and other emerging infectious diseases like Ebola, COVID-19 and Monkeypox. 

In the Webinar presentation by Paul Adepoju, who is a freelance science writer and Community Manager at the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ), he said, “We need to be more prepared in our response to epidemics and in the dissemination of fact-based information to the public.”

Mr. Adepoju encouraged journalists to broaden their horizons and “make the best out of the resources they have and be open-minded, because science stories can make front pages in as much as your story is touching the lives of people.”

Also speaking at the event, Ms. Jackie Okpara-Fatoye, one of the facilitators, from SciDev.Net, stated that, “Science Journalism is a specialized field and an integral part of journalism, which should take the center stage in African Journalism.” 

She categorized that, “Science stories are not necessarily the most explosive but have one of the greatest impacts and many problems can be found in research papers as well as their solutions. Science reporting is a solution to journalism.”

The former Vice President of the World Federation of Science Journalists, who doubles as Publisher of Africa Science, Technology and Innovation (AfricaSTI), Diran Onifade, 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 said, the project was funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF (COVID-19: Strategic Media Engagement for Public Understanding of Scientific Research, Infectious/Non-Infectious Diseases), to provide 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. 

While asserted the need to build a critical mass of journalists, who are able to report science correctly, he said, “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. How can we use our own agenda settings, as journalists and as media organizations, to nudge society research-wise and through some other means in this direction of areas that have become existential for Africa?”

On his part, Founder of DevComs Network-cum Chief Editor Nature Africa as well principal investigator on the project, Akin Jimoh, said “The theme of the Webinar series was necessitated by findings that showed, 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 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 it exists in a few countries like South Africa, but we need to do more.  

He elaborated that, “This is an area that some of us have dedicated our lives to and we cut across scientists, health promotion experts and non-governmental organizations and media platforms.”

Mr. Jimoh further explained that, the Strategic Media engagement project is collaboration between strategic media development organizations and leading research institutions, as well as media platforms in educating key journalists to ensure public understanding of science and public health issues. 

He said, 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.
 
Also, 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) News.

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