In a panel on sub-Saharan Africa, Ochieng’ Ogodo of Kenya outlined the science-based challenges facing his continent, including its vulnerability to climate change; water stress and scarcity; widespread diseases from HIV-AIDS to malaria; lack of innovative new products coming to market; and the underlying problems of poverty and hunger. “Africa requires science as an agent for change,” said Ogodo, news editor for sub-Saharan Africa for SciDev.net, an international online news and information network that focuses on science in the developing world using local journalists and editors.
He was critical of past reporting by Western news agencies that focused on natural disasters and military coups in Africa. “Africa was seen as a place that has all the bad things,” said Ogodo. “We need local science journalism. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. It provides a means for empowering the public with “new ideas and knowledge .If we really want to get people to know what’s happening, we must communicate in a language that everyone understands,” including “things that people can do to change their own systems.”
As is true elsewhere in the world, he and other African science journalists are faced with the challenging assignment of trying to separate science from pseudoscience, including “demystifying some diseases” and challenging false claims that divine healing powers could cure HIV-AIDS and other diseases. Marina Joubet of South Africa said at a workshop that in her country, “80 percent of people go to traditional healers rather than medical doctors.”
Experiences in Asia vary greatly, with Chinese science writers limited by a lack of transparency in government agencies, scientists who are reluctant to deal with media, and public information officers who “propagandize” scientific research. “This is the situation in many developing countries,” said Jia Hepeng, a World Federation board member and senior science journalist in Beijing who founded the China Science Media Center.
At a session added on the Fukushima nuclear power accident in Japan, Hajime Hiniko, a senior science writer for Chunichi Shimbun and the secretary-general of the Japanese Association of Science and Technology Journalists, criticized the multiple failures to listen to earlier warnings about a largescale earthquake in that region. “Seismologists warned, regulators neglected, and the media didn’t know,” he said, arguing that Japanese scientists needed to do a better job of expressing “their opinion to the public and to the media.”
In less developed parts of the continent, reporters face an even larger plethora of challenges. During one presentation, T.V. Padma, the India-based South Asia coordinator for SciDev.net, called science journalism in the region “patchy and uneven.” According to one government estimate, India devotes roughly 3 percent of its news hole to science coverage. There is “some degree of science coverage” in Pakistan, Padma added, and even less in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Maldives, and Bhutan.
The challenges are multifaceted, Padma said. Some editors claim there’s no demand for science news due to low levels of literacy and even lower levels of scientific literacy; there are few trained science journalists and limited education opportunities; and there is a lack of scientific information networks. Nonetheless, she added, there are positive trends as well. Interest in science has survived the conflict in Afghanistan; in Bangladesh, scientists have been asking editors to devote more time and resources to science coverage; community radio programs are catching on in Nepal, with potential for science coverage; and in 2008, the United Nations organized a science journalism workshop for reporters in Sri Lanka.
Similar examples of the ups and down in various corners of the world abounded at the conference. But the meeting’s most dramatic moments came on the last day, with a session about the Arab Spring and the role science journalism might play in the future. Mohammed Yahia, a young Egyptian science writer, found himself changing hats in the wake of the January 25 uprising. “Sometimes I was a journalist,” he said, but increasingly he found himself on the front lines in Tahrir Square, rocks raining down on him. “At that moment, I couldn’t be a journalist,” he said. “I had to take part.”