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Conference Explores the Challenge of Science Journalism in the Developing World
Melbourne, Australia—Science writers from emerging and developing nations often must cope with an array of challenges: Internet service can be slow or unreliable. The electrical system can fail. Local scientists may be reluctant sources, and editors might not value science reporting. Governments sometimes apply pressure when stories go against the official line.
Reporters and science communicators from 20 nations discussed such obstacles during a UNESCO-sponsored workshop held in conjunction with the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne, Australia, from 16-20 April. The attendees shared experiences and needs, including ways to improve and expand training and mentoring programs for journalists from developing regions.
AAAS's EurekAlert! science news service was an exhibitor at the Melbourne conference and AAAS also participated in the 16 April workshop, which included discussion of a UNESCO project to develop a generic science journalism course for developing countries.
Educators and science communicators working on the project outlined the course structure and received some immediate feedback from attendees who asked why journalists from developing nations were not brought into the process from the very beginning.
Nadia El-Awady, president of the Arab Science Journalists Association, questioned whether there would be a market for the proposed course in nations, such as in the Middle East, where many universities do not offer specialized courses on business journalism, sports journalism or other areas. "We just have general journalism," she said, "so if you start with science journalism, will you have students interested to begin with?"
El-Awady also urged more input by journalists from the developing world in the writing of the course outline, noting that it had been presented by panelists from Australia and the United States.
Iskra Panevska, a UNESCO program specialist involved with the course development effort, stressed that the workshop was "just the beginning of a long, long process which we are going to do together with you," including additional regional workshops where views will be solicited from working journalists. "It's in your hands," agreed Philip Hilts, a professor of journalism at Boston University and former New York Times reporter who helped write part of the course outline.
The workshop attendees made clear that whatever does result not be a "one size fits all" approach. Some spoke of the need for targeted training programs for working journalists rather than year-long courses in science journalism. In some cases, they argued that universities in their homelands might be reluctant to adopt the course because they have other priorities.
The UNESCO-backed course is not the only one in the works. The World Federation of Science Journalists and SciDev.Net, a source of science and technology news for the developing world, are creating an online science journalism course. By 2008, the first of eight lessons should be available on the federation's website.
There also are an increasing number of training, mentoring and fellowship programs and other resources being made available to journalists from developing regions. These include a AAAS program that has brought deserving journalists from Africa, Latin America and China to AAAS annual meetings where they can mingle with colleagues from around the globe and hone their writing and reporting skills. AAAS also is offering more help to reporters in China with the upcoming launch of EurekAlert! Chinese, a Chinese-language version of the popular online news service that provides access to embargoed and breaking news, peer-reviewed journals, experts and other valuable resources.
The World Federation of Science Journalists has a program, called SjCOOP, that matches inexperienced science journalists with skilled mentors. Sixty writers have been trained in 30 nations of the Middle East and Africa and there are plans to extend the program to Asia and Latin America, according to Federation officials. SjCOOP also has helped establish associations of science journalists in developing nations, such as Cameroon and Kenya, and has linked those new associations with long-established groups of science writers in the developed world.
The Washington-based International Center for Journalists offers a variety of workshops, fellowships and training programs for writers from developing nations. And the National Press Foundation, also based in Washington, runs a Journalist-to-Journalist (J2J) program in which experienced journalists mentor colleagues and work together to increase global coverage of important issues. The program, for example, is offering fellowships for international journalists to cover the upcoming 4th International Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention in Sydney, Australia, in July.
Despite the existing training, mentoring and fellowship programs, journalists at the Melbourne meeting said there are urgent needs still to be met, including efforts to train editors, university officials, and scientists in their home nations to be more supportive of good science journalism.
Invited by workshop organizers to discuss their biggest needs, the attendees offered a glimpse at what they face on a regular basis. A Kenyan journalist said it is "like chasing a rainbow" to get an editor who really understands the science subjects he is writing about.
Christina Scott, a South African journalist, noted the need for science reporting in her nation in languages other than English. There are 11 official languages in South Africa and, while English is the language of science, it is not the majority language in South Africa.
Daniela Hirschfield, a writer from Uruguay, said it is essential to convince editors that "if you have a parliament reporter, you need a science reporter" as well. She said there is only one newspaper in Uruguay that devotes substantial coverage to science.
Aleem Ahmed, a Pakistani journalist, said that many writers in his country cover science almost as a hobby but then switch to other careers. "We need to assure that they become bona fide science journalists," he said.
Although the workshop participants spoke of diverse challenges, including some highly specific to their own countries, they also agreed that much of what they face is not that different from what journalists face everywhere—how to find the resources and sources to tell good, compelling stories that can make a difference.
Pallab Ghosh, science correspondent for the BBC and the new president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, said the federation is trying to foster a culture of confidence among science writers in the developing world so they recognize strong stories and can convince news editors they are worth pursuing. "The key to all of this is to get the confidence," Ghosh told the workshop.
8 May 2007