By Vivian Agaba
Getting scientists and science journalists into one room to talk and agree on good working relations is not usual.
At the just concluded third Kenya Science Journalists Congress held from 18th-20th November 2019, at Sai Rock Beach Hotel, Mombasa-Kenya, this just happened.
The scientists and science journalists acknowledged that they need each other in promoting science reporting in Africa, and it is high time they created an amicable working relationship.
The congress was organized by Media for Environment, Science, Health, and Agriculture (MESHA). It was attended by Science journalists from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Malawi and senior editors from the host country.
During a field trip at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI-Wellcome Trust) director for the Initiative to Develop Africa Research Leaders (IDeAL) Dr. Sam Kinyanjui recognized that media plays a crucial role in disseminating health information to the public.
“There are many scientists who have done good research findings, but the information in their medical journals is hidden in shelves after peer reviews. This information is supposed to be put out to benefit the world,” said Dr. Kinyanjui.
“As scientists, if we want our work to positively impact the world, we have to open up, have a close working relationship with journalists because they have a wider reach than us,” he added
A senior scientist at Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, Dr. Jacqueline Uku said there are still many untold science and environmental stories, and citing an example of stories on the ‘blue economy’ she noted that this is an emerging concept rich with stories that environmental reporters can extensively write about.
According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem.”
Daniel Aghan, the MESHA executive secretary recalled that in the past, the level of engagement has been very minimal in the sense that scientists would come in small numbers, make presentations, engage journalists shortly and go.
But this time around, the scientists stayed for three days as full congress participants and attended the training on how to engage with the media.
Explaining why the relationship between scientists and science journalists is critical, Aghan said; “Scientists do the work, journalists are the messengers who must convey correct and accurate information. And this kind of work demands a cordial and friendly relationship so that messages can flow to ensure the consumers get it in a timely manner without distortion.” This is a value chain type of relationship.
According to Aghan, scientists engaging with science journalists is a new beginning to a beautiful relationship that can promote timely and extended reporting on science and the environment in the continent. A key observation is that all the scientists who attended the congress were from Kenya.
When asked what should be done to broaden the horizon and bring onboard scientists from other East African countries and Africa as a whole, Aghan said organizations need to start budgeting and funding scientists for the engagements with science journalists. He pointed out that without financial support, these engagements may be hard.
“It is hard without financial support from their own organizations. The initiative should come from such institutions and governments. They must budget for these engagements with science journalists,” said Aghan.
Aghan revealed that there is a plan to change the name of the congress to another one that suits the group, considering that more journalists from different African countries are coming on board.
Reflections from journalists on their challenges;
During one of the sessions at the congress, a panel consisting of four journalists from Kenya, Ethiopia, and Malawi was constituted to share challenges they encounter while reporting about science and the environment.
Mistrust between scientists and journalists, hard terminologies in science and sometimes inaccessibility of scientists make reporting about health and science a challenge.
One of the panelists a science journalist from Ethiopia, Mekonnen Teshome revealed that in most cases when journalists contact scientists for information, the latter is not willing to talk, or are ‘too busy’, and this can be frustrating especially if the story is needed urgently. He noted that it is such challenges that keep away many journalists from being interested in reporting science.
The manager in charge of Training at Media Council of Kenya (MCK), Christine Nguku taking participants through a session on how newsrooms work, she told scientists that newsrooms work under deadlines. As such if a journalist calls you for information, do not say wait. If you cannot answer the questions, recommend a colleague who can. Otherwise, the story will be dropped. Remember, you are competing for space with the politicians.
She advised scientists to always endeavor to simplify science language for journalists to enable them to communicate easily to the members of the public.
For journalists, Nguku urged them to build a good rapport with scientists, report responsibly, build their own credibility to make science and environmental reporting meaningful.
My thoughts about the congress;
This was my first time to attend the congress. As a health reporter and a member of the Health Journalists Network in Uganda (HEJNU) who had represented the network, it was a great opportunity to be part of.
The network is an umbrella association that brings together health/science and technology reporters in the country.
First and foremost, I was intrigued by the diversity of over 30 journalists from the six African countries, and many shared their experiences on how they have managed to keep in journalism for ten years or more reporting about science and the environment. Bringing together science journalists helps in improving the quality of health reporting on the continent by tapping into fresh perspectives of other journalists in other countries and this translates into high-quality health journalism in Africa.
Through other colleagues’ testimonies, I was inspired to stop limiting myself to only health reporting, but to spread my wings and start reporting on the environment because it is an evolving field.
Secondly, I appreciated the interaction between the two professions. We were able to engage them to find out why some of them mistrust journalists, and never want to speak to us. Some said they fear being misquoted others work with institutions that have bureaucracies that do not allow them to speak to members of the media. With such openness, one gets to appreciate their fears and how best to work with them.
It was also an awesome experience to have a session where scientists were told the gimmicks of the newsrooms. They were told about how journalists work under tight deadlines, they were asked to simplify the science jargon when talking to journalists so that the latter can write or broadcast the information in the easiest way possible that even the unschooled person can understand.
They were also tipped on how they can use different media channels to promote their works in their respective fields by writing opinions, letters, and commentaries. Many went away with editors and journalists’ contacts.
On the last day of the congress, MESHA also organized the 14th media science café and few scientists also made presentations. This was familiar with what we do at HEJNU, regularly, we interface with scientists and advocates in different sexual and reproductive health and rights field (SRHR) to inform and updates on new developments in the science world. This strengthens our relationship but we are also able to remain up to par with what is happening and we can inform our audiences.
Making a presentation on the results of the ECHO study (Evidence for Contraceptive Options in HIV Outcomes) trial that were released June this year, a researcher at Kisumu’s Kenya Medical Research Institute, Dr. Maricianah Onono made key observations.
She revealed that despite women being at a higher risk of contracting HIV, many kinds of research have left them out of the HIV research.
The expert pointed out that only 8.3% of participants enrolled in HIV cure studies are women. She said it is high time women including adolescents and young girls are included in researches on health issues affecting them including though not limited to HIV and family planning.
The congress also presented a good networking opportunity.