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Out of Africa, into a new world of science reporting

The Harwell science and innovation campus is a far cry from a busy newsroom in Africa. 

For the past week, the campus has hosted 16 reporters from across Africa for a Science Journalism Workshop designed to strengthen developing nations’ capacity in science reporting at a national level.

The delegates were from Ghana, Cameroon, Malawi, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Congo, Egypt, Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa, and are all working journalists.

“When we are going to journalism schools, we don’t learn about health, we don’t learn about climate change,” said Mercy Malikwa from Malawi.

“But when we are in the newsroom, we are supposed to communicate these things to people, yet we ourselves don’t understand them. So from this training, I am hoping I am going to be able to understand about the health, science aspect and the governmental aspect very well so that when I go back to work I am going to be reporting things that I am aware of. Instead of just regurgitating information from research papers, I am going to be analysing them and giving people the right information.”

The reporters attended training and discussion sessions, and visited research facilities at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Medical Research Council Harwell centre and the STFC Chilbolton Observatory. The sessions included topics on food security and agriculture, environmental issues such as climate change, skills in mobile journalism and dissecting a science paper, how to pitch a science story, earth observation, and developmental diseases – to name a few.

Egyptian journalist Mohammad El-Said said he was looking forward to writing more about issues that interest readers in his country: “We have topics to cover like water issues, climate change, agriculture – this is a big topic and issue to discuss in Egypt that we’re interested in.”

Dr Alexandra Morel, a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Zoological Society of London who has been working in Ghana and Ethiopia, hosted a session at Chilbolton Observatory on forest dynamics and El Nino impacts on agroforestry systems.

“Africa is projected to be hit particularly hard by climate change and it will be essential for media actors to keep the public informed and their governments accountable as they roll out adaptive measures and policies,” Dr Morel said.

“The work I am presenting is valuable as it reveals some of the ways smallholder farmers across Africa could be vulnerable to future climate change. As the data was collected from a landscape perspective and through the recent El Niño, it reveals how limited individual farmers may be to mitigate the effects of a climate shock on their own and, therefore, it becomes important for governments and the media to understand ways to support farmers in adapting to these climatic changes.”

During the week, the African journalists also had the opportunity to meet a range of industry communications personnel, as well as key science journalists, including renowned BBC Science Correspondent Pallab Ghosh.

One of the challenges for the African visitors was adjusting to the English weather – the single digit temperatures, strong winds and rain of Storm Gareth were a massive contrast to the southern hemisphere summer many left behind. But a bigger contrast was the differing focus of media in the UK compared to Africa, and the challenges faced by reporters across Africa - lack of freely available information, government restrictions on reporting and even the fear of arrest or worse for themselves and their families.

“Political intimidation or political maliciousness is something that is creeping into society, so now if journalists are doing their work, they are being attacked,” one participant noted.

The reporters also gathered interviews and background material for news stories for publication when they return home. Freelance journalist, Paul Adepoju, said the topics presented were relevant to him, and is now armed with countless stories to report on when he returns home to Nigeria.

“I have stories on climate change, lots of stories on the use of mice; the challenges and the potential implications,” Paul said. “I have several stories on developments, space applications… I also have several stories on instrumentation, advancement in technology, and quite a number of good ideas. I am really mind-blown by the experience and I have lots of knowledge and had lots connections with the researchers that will really make my writing experience and research much better.”

The workshop was funded by the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund, and was delivered by the World Federation of Science Journalists in partnership with UK Research and Innovation.

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Last updated: 15 March 2019


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