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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Science journalism in South Africa is lacking

Lali van Zuydam

It is common cause that science news reporting in the South African media does not enjoy the same status as other beats such as politics, crime, sport and business.

It is hardly surprising that politicians like Julius Malema and Malusi Gigaba, and businessmen like Markus Jooste and Nicky Oppenheimer grace our front pages more often than any scientist or researcher in South Africa.

Knowledge journalism and quality content has been replaced with celebrity news, horoscopes, astrology columns and the sex lives of prominent people in our society. We know more about the Kardashians than we do about the first African female cardio-thoracic surgeon in South Africa.

A 2004 study by a student at Stellenbosch University found that only 2% of editorial content in the country’s top publications is dedicated to science news.

Considering the power of the media to influence public perceptions and to assist the government, business and consumers in making informed choices, specialist science journalists are vital to assist in and improve the public’s understanding of science.

According to the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report in 2012, the quality of South Africa’s science and maths education has been rated second to last globally.

This has a great impact on science literacy in a country where about 20% of adults are illiterate, more than a quarter of the adult population unemployed and very few teenagers graduate from high school with university-level science or maths passes, according to the same report.

This paints a grim picture as most people in South Africa do not understand the impact of science on their daily lives, rendering them unable to achieve socio-economic development goals. Fake news and overwhelming amounts of information available on the internet make it difficult for South African audiences to distinguish fact from fiction and real science from pseudoscience and downright quackery. It would be interesting to see how many people still believe in former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s claims that beetroot and garlic work better against HIV/Aids than anti-retroviral treatment.

To make matters worse, there are those who spend their time purposefully creating confusing content, rather than adding value to the news industry in the country. As we speak, Unisa is investigating an employee implicated in a network of 15 fake news websites.

Many have lamented the insufficiency of science journalists due to budget constraints, human resources challenges and the ‘juniorisation’ of newsrooms. Science is also not considered sexy enough to make it into the news and most people consider science too difficult for “normal people” to understand.

Thus, the importance of good science journalism cannot be overstated.

We have a myriad of great, one-of-a-kind reporting opportunities on issues such as climate change, energy issues, the discovery of Homo naledi and Little Foot in the Cradle of Humankind, and the Square Kilometre Array project in the Northern Cape.

Science can save lives, but the incorrect reporting of science can also lead to the loss of life. Thus it is of the utmost importance that journalists, and not only specialist science journalists, equip themselves with critical thinking skills to ensure audiences receive high quality, reliable news.

Aspiring science journalists should make use of the opportunities offered by the 2018 Science Forum South Africa to hone their skills and to network with those doing cutting-edge research in all fields in this country.

Science communicators and researchers should open the doors to their institutions and help journalists fall in love with telling success stories that often remain locked away in ivory towers or hidden away in complex, dense and difficult-to-understand academic studies.

Van Zuydam recently completed her MA Journalism thesis on the current state of science journalism in South Africa at Stellenbosch University

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