Why it’s difficult for East African journalists to cover scientific discoveries

The mandible was discovered by ASU graduate student Chalachew Seyoum

Here’s a once-in-a-generation news item for you: The oldest human-like fossil—a jawbone discovered in Ethiopia—is radically turning back the evolutionary clock. At 2.8 million years old, it predates all known human fossils by nearly half a million years. The revelation was announced on March 4 in Science, and science geeks everywhere are aflutter, as mainstream media coverage zeroes in on the rarity and significance of the discovery.

Deep interpretive coverage on the Ledi-Geraru jaw (named for the site where it was discovered) showcases science writing at its best. The National Geographic feature, for example, is a case study on how to write about scientists who disagree with one another without falling into the pro/con, this-or-that dynamic. In beautifully simple narration by Jamie Shreeve, the magazine’s executive editor for science, the piece traces back to how the discovery builds on the findings of Louis and Mary Leakey in 1960s Tanzania. (“[T]his story was too cool not to assign to myself,” Shreeve tweeted.)

jaw-landscape.jpg

A caravan moves across the Lee Adoyta region in the Ledi-Geraru project area near the early Homo site. The hills behind the camels expose sediments that are younger than 2.67 million years old, providing a minimum age for the LD 350-1 mandible. (Photo by Erin DiMaggio)

And in an unusual circumstance of two competing publications working together, Science synced up its publication of the discovery with the journal Nature, which coincidentally had an article on Homo habilis ready that came to some of the same conclusions about human origins. While it might have been tempting for one or the other to publish first so that it could lead the headlines, the two titles cooperated instead so that there could be better contextual understanding of both articles.

But there is a glaring blank spot in all this: Coverage in East Africa of the fossil is nearly nonexistent, despite the fact that it was discovered in Ethiopia by an Ethiopian researcher, a graduate student at Arizona State University. Even local outlets with sustained science coverage have scarcely mentioned it.This points to a big missed opportunity—not only for science journalism in East Africa, but for the larger Ledi-Geraru story to be deepened and expanded with local, on-the-ground reporting.

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Julie Russ, the assistant director of ASU’s Institute of Human Origins, manages communications for the team. She emphasized that working with Ethiopian media and officials was a “a really important part of the story,” illustrated by the fact that the instant the Science article was published, a senior scientist was in Addis Ababa to simultaneously make the announcement live. “It’s so important for them to protect their cultural heritage, and so important for us to respect that need,” Russ said. Locally, there is a lot of publicity and excitement about anthropological discoveries in Ethiopia, where the bones of “Lucy” were also discovered. Natasha Pinol, senior communications officer with the organization that publishes Science, said in an email that the project’s lead press officers “were invited to work with us and the authors to coordinate access to material and to reach out to reporters in other parts of the world,” including a number of Ethiopian outlets.

But there are several constraints in the traditional process of announcing a discovery that makes it more difficult for East African journalists to be included in sharing the breaking news.

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A detailed map of the where the Ledi-Geraru site is located references other important fossil sites in Ethiopia. (Image by Erin DiMaggio)

One is that the announcement was scheduled on Western time. The embargo on both the Science and Nature articles ended on March 4 at 1pm Eastern Standard Time, which is 8pm in Addis Ababa. The live announcement in Ethiopia occurred late enough that it wasn’t likely to make the next day’s papers—or even its online news sites. Only a tiny item made it into the Ethiopian News Agency on March 5. AllAfrica.com published its report on March 7, three days later. Sudan Vision just went with a Reuters wire story on March 11.

Another obstacle is the standard peer-review publication process. Researchers cannot talk or write about big news like this before the journal publishes the article, and the typical window of opportunity to give reporters a heads up is very tight. The first alert about the discovery was sent to 6,000 registered reporters worldwide at 8pm eastern on Sunday, March 1. Pinol said that reporters were pointed to an online password-protected press package.

They had less than three days to read the Science and Nature articles, to interview the scientists involved, and to check the story against scientists who were not part of the project but could give an outside perspective. Given the scope of the discovery, the scientists soon had their calendars booked end-to-end with interviews. Journalists in East Africa were working in a time zone that was eight hours ahead—or, in the case of the ASU researchers, 10 hours. That leaves an even smaller window of opportunity for them to participate in the process. And even if they did get a phone or Skype call through, the connection can be unreliable, given that many are working with less-than-stellar telecommunications systems.

The Ledi-Geraru jaw is so extraordinary Science did something else unusual with its press outreach. It arranged a teleconference on Wednesday morning, a few hours before the embargo lifted. “That’s something they haven’t done on any of our discoveries before,” Russ said. The teleconference had most of the authors of the main paper on the phone along with about 55 journalists. The authors spoke about their discovery and analysis, and journalists could ask them questions. In part because Science has such a large worldwide network, reporters from the Netherlands, Spain, and Colombia were among those who dialed in. Pinol said the teleconference was set up in collaboration with Ethiopia’s Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, and the director general was invited to give opening remarks. But telephone difficulties kept him offline. And, of course, the ARCCH representative isn’t a reporter.

We need to find better ways to connect. Because if there is any question about the potential influence of East African science reporting, consider that a 2011 UNESCO study credits the media in Uganda with “transforming public knowledge about HIV/AIDS by persistently, consistently and accurately conveying basic scientific information about transmission of the disease.”

Wherever a media outlet is based, contextual science reporting matters. A discovery doesn’t just happen; it happens in a particular place, with a confluence of economic, political, and social context. Local communities should be engaged as journalists, and also as part of the unfolding story. What, for example, is the environmental impact at the Ethiopian dig site of this new fossil? Does the local community benefit economically from this profound discovery? If not, why not? These are important ways for reporters to follow up the story, putting some meat on the bones, as it were.

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Anna Clark is CJR’s correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.