The state of science journalism in South Africa

Abstract: In a country racked by violent crime, political infighting and scientific ignorance, the quest of the science journalist mirrors that of a famous Greek mythical hero…

According to Greek mythology, Prometheus, a titan, forged mankind from clay, and knowing that mankind needed fire to survive, he lit a torch from the sun and brought it to Earth. Zeus considered the fire stolen, and was so incensed he punished Prometheus – an immortal – by having him chained to a rock, and a giant eagle tear at his liver every day.

It’s a myth imbued with themes of discovery, bravery and loyalty; but the bringing of knowledge, represented by fire, to mankind, is why the analogy of Prometheus is used by the University of Stellenbosch’s Professor George Claassen to describe the state of science journalism in his country.

Prof Claassen is the popular archetype of a senior academic: bespectacled, with tousled greying hair, and a subtle, endearing air of eccentricity. He also has an inextinguishable passion for science and science journalism. He has to – he presents the only science journalism course in South Africa. In journalism academia, he is something of a lone crusader.

“Unfortunately”, says Prof Claasen, “in South African newsrooms, editors have replaced the basic fire of knowledge journalists should bring to the people, with the burning desire to feed the masses with information about Paris Hilton and celebrities and royalty, and their sex lives.”

The situation, he describes, is unhealthy. He quotes a 2004 report that showed less than two percent of editorial space in the country’s top publications was awarded to the topics of science and technology. It’s one of a number of studies in South Africa that taps into a tangle of cultures, tensions and failures; and a public simultaneously interested, confused and fearful about science.

An awkward relationship with science
It’s fair to say that South Africans enjoy a rather awkward relationship with science. A study by Professor Anastassios Pouris, Director of the Institute for Technological Innovation at the University of Pretoria, found an encouragingly positive attitude towards science by the South African public. Eighty four percent of those surveyed believed science and technology made their lives easier and more comfortable. Yet there was a significant belief amongst the respondents – 58 percent – that science and technology also held possible adverse effects on society.

If there’s any positive attitude towards science amongst South Africans it hasn’t translated into a positive understanding of science. South Africa is a country with a worrying science literacy rate. In the most recent WEF Global Competitiveness Report, South Africa came second-to-last out of 144 countries in the quality of its maths and science education.

“The problem,” says Professor Anton Harber, the Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, “is that there is a disconnect between the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Education.”

Katy Katopodis, the Editor-in-Chief of Eyewitness News, doubts if the ministers of the two departments are even talking to each other. She also points to the fact that education is a deeply political issue, “We can’t talk about the shocking state of maths and science education in South Africa without talking about the fact that there doesn”t seem to be the political will to address the state of education in this country.”

In the absence of the critical thinking encouraged by science at school, superstition and a belief in spirits remain rooted in many traditional cultures; and as such, South Africans are prone to embrace what science journalists dismiss as pseudoscience.

South Africans are also deeply religious, and embrace a wide mix of religions, the most dominant of which is Christianity. This encourages the frequent rejection of science where it clashes with religious belief. A 2009 British Council’s Darwin Now study showed only 12 percent of South Africans believed that evolution is a fact.

There’s also a conspicuous disfigurement to the South Africa context that casts a specific challenge for science journalists: Violent crime is never far from the forefront of public discussion, followed closely by politics and its discordant retinue of corruption, maladministration and infighting. With such powerful drama and emotional issues so prevalent in the lives of South Africans, it’s easy to understand why science battles to find a foothold in newsrooms.

There’s another part to the perfect storm for science journalism, and one that is threatening newsrooms around the world: shifts in media consumption and the costs of production, especially after the 2008 global economic downturn. Global news channel CNN followed the downturn by axing its entire science and environmental team.

Prof Anton Harber, shakes his head somewhat stoically, “Investigative reporting – and proper science journalism needs to be vigorous in its inquiry – demands a lot in terms of time and resources; which, for a newspaper, both equate to cost; so under tough economic conditions, specialist desks such as science are always the first to go”.

The science of spin and the spin of science
The impact of such cuts has opened the gates to a more surreptitious threat for science journalism: the public relations industry. Inexperienced journalists with little or no science-writing qualifications are easily captivated by the lure of PR spin from research organisations. It’s not uncommon to see swathes of common copy in different newspapers covering the latest research.

Linda Nordling, managing editor of Research Africa, is concerned about the increasing role that PR seems to be having in science journalism: “I think the lack of interest from editors in science stories contributes to the PR being given space.”

For those surviving science journalists who can sidestep the spin, one of the biggest challenges remains getting face-to-face time with scientists who are usually protective of their research, whilst journalists are inclined, by instinct and training, to probe it.

For Lynne Smit, President of the South African Science Journalists’ Association, the problem lies very much with those conducting the research: “It’s an academia thing, not just science. They have this arrogant attitude that they are the holders of this great knowledge and that everyone else is going to misquote them.”

It’s not all one-sided though. According to Prof Claassen one of the most serious issues scientists encounter when dealing with the South African media, is the latter’s lack of distinction between textbook science – that which is settled and accepted scientific knowledge – and frontier science, which is the ongoing scientific enquiry often accompanied by unconfirmed results.

It is the allure of frontier science that often helps it grab the headlines. However, without the established facts, highly complex research findings are often reduced to headlines that are misleading and reports that present deductions that are either exaggerated or blatantly wrong.

Yet put scientists and journalists in a room together and they soon realise that they share common passions and behaviour: they embrace scrutiny and scepticism; their topics of study require vigorous analysis if they’re to stand up to professional scrutiny; they document evidence requiring great attention to detail; and then they write it up and present it for evaluation.

If there is something South African scientists and journalists do agree on, it’s the continued need for the media to act as the intermediary between science and society. Science is, by its very nature, a highly diverse and specialised enterprise; and for a country like South Africa, with such a low level of scientific literacy, scientific research often seems completely otherworldly.

Again, Prof Claassen reaches for his Prometheus analogy: “South Africans desperately need scientific knowledge, that bright flame, if they are to progress and develop. Without it they risk being swallowed by the darkness of ignorance, superstition, and pseudoscience.” He agrees, and strongly so, that the role of journalists is to be the carrier of that flame of knowledge; but, and here he raises a finger, it’s not to be left in the hands of those who don’t understand science.

The future may be in the stars
If there’s a light of hope for science journalists, it could be from the stars. The recent awarding of the lion’s share of the SKA project to South Africa brought a burst of attention, and column inches, to their craft. It also seemed to electrify the science community in general.

For a moment there was a change in the fortunes of science journalism. Scientists, the government and the media clicked together, spurred on by a public seemingly reaching out, wanting to know more; and science journalists stepped up to centre stage.

Perhaps this is the break science journalists in South Africa have been waiting for – the spark to ignite a revival of their Prometheus quest, the opportunity to lean forward and offer the burning flame of scientific knowledge. Perhaps it is the moment they should embrace a resurgent role as both critical analysts and measured ambassadors for science and scientific enquiry.

Prof Claassen is hopeful, but guarded. He insists that unless scientists and journalists can bridge their differences and strengthen the binds that join them; unless the Departments of Science and Technology and of Education can devise a strategy to develop science literacy amongst schoolchildren; and unless editors start shifting priorities from tales of wild celebrity behaviour towards stories about science; it may all be for nothing.

Then, smiles Prof Claassen sadly; “the score will be Prometheus 0, Paris Hilton 1.”

Originally published in Mail & Guardian 21 December 2012