Science: media’s shabby cousin

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By Patience Shawarira
“…News editors and editors are not on board about the value of science news. They should also be trained on the value of science news, not only the journalists. They are the ones who decide on publication. And unfortunately most of them (the editors) underestimate and undervalue science as news…”

Presenting findings from his MA research on the second day of the Highway Africa -SACOMM (the South African Communication Association) 2017 conference in Grahamstown last week, Steven Lang said science is poorly reported in mainstream media in South Africa. The Department of Science and Technology (DST), and the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) have both consistently and loudly expressed concern about the mediocre quality and paucity of the science content in South Africa media. Lang’s research revealed that there is little space dedicated to science reporting in the South African media.

Lang’s findings, which he presented on 1 September, used the Daily Dispatch (which publishes out of East London), as a case study and explored linkages between the newspaper’s editorial process, the news values of its editorial staff, and the limitations of science coverage.

A quantitative content analysis revealed that in the six-month research period, the Daily dispatch published 150 editions containing 128 articles that included at least some kind of scientific explanation, and only one of the 128 articles was devoted exclusively to science for the sake of scientific interest.

Indeed, a Stellenbosch University study of 15 national publications in 2002 had found that “only” 1.8% of the editorial content was dedicated to science and technology reportage, Lang said. The use of the adjective “only” indicates that the opinion of the lead author, 1.8% is not enough.

Lang said his research, “showed that when science was included on the pages of the Daily Dispatch it was never the prime focus of the article”. His research revealed that health-related articles focusing on Ebola outbreaks for instance, accounted for the highest proportion of articles that included some minimal amount of scientific explanation.

The Daily dispatch editorial position is that science content belongs in the lifestyle or entertainment section rather than the main news pages. According to Lang, this editorial position is characteristic of most newspapers in the country.

This editorial outlook, undermining the news values of science content was also addressed in the Sanef report tabled at its Annual General Meeting in 2011. The Sanef report identified the editorial biases of senior editorial staff and their perceptions of readers’ interests as the main obstacles to more extensive coverage of the sciences in the South African media.

 

  • By Patience Shawarira was reporting for Highway Africa, the publication for Highway Africa 
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