The Nexus Beween Science And Media: Gaps And Opportunities

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Eugenia Abu

Eugenia Abu

I am absolutely delighted and deeply honored to have been invited to deliver the keynote at an event where the media and scientists gather together to honor the bright minds of an honored tested profession, the media, in their shared responsibility to engage citizens on innovations of science and technology and how they impact us all and affect policy. The Media remains a veritable partner in sending out information on any field, keeping the populace involved and engaging policy makers and citizens in areas that need to be propagated and shared. Without the media to give out information, hold persons and nations accountable and provide a platform for dissemination while playing an agenda setting role, the world will be drab and uninteresting. I wish to salute the Nigerian Academy of Science for understanding that the media is an unflappable partner in their journey to make science an important resource for improving society and to share their milestones. I salute Vitafoam for understanding deeply the importance of this award ceremony and providing the necessary support for its prosecution and the imperative of maximizing the benefits of science and increasing the awareness of such benefits which will result in increased support for the development and application of science in the society.

The role of science and technology over time has led to great strides for humanity, from aviation to medicine and from agricultural technology to food science. Without scientists complimenting nature’s essential cycle of adjustment, the world would be a big ball of discomfort and there will be poor relationships everywhere you go. But we are lucky to have gifted scientists breaking new grounds in their field and Nigeria holds the collection of some of the finest scientists in the world. That been said our media continue to grow and possess the best the continent can offer winning accolades and awards all over the world.

Permit me to set the tone for this address before we really get into the meat on this long standing relationship between the media and scientists and how both disciplines are changing over time and therefore requires everyone on either side of the divide to come to a long lasting agreement for the benefit of humanity. Do allow me posit a few thought provoking questions. Are citizens literate enough to weigh in on scientific research and innovations to understand how they affect policy? Are policy makers well educated in the science and technology quotient f the nation’s scientific minds to make informed decisions/ Do media personnel understand the milestones innovations and scientific jargon enough to do the needful by informing everyone and targeting stakeholders by their reportage for affecting change? Are the scientists’ media savvy enough or even willing to get what needs to be publicized out there for the benefit of us all? Does the media in fact understand scientists and their work and do the scientists understand the work of the media? Therein lies the crux of the matter. In an age where the internet has taken over the world and traditional media is cutting back spending while dwelling more on consumer led entertainment, science journalism is been squeezed and the pages for science journalism is dwindling in the face of an economic crunch facing traditional media. It is in this new world of media innovations supported by new technologies that there are opportunities for both sides but also gaps. It is the balancing act that is the core of this address today.

Science and Media are structured by different institutions and governed by different rules but there are as many similarities as there are differences, but we shall get to that. In the introduction to an excellent book on Science and Media relations I consulted as part of my research for this address, the editors Donald Kennedy et al posited that” Scientific illiteracy has deep and wide implications … around the world –Having a minority in a democratic conversation with science and technology provides a low level of public discussion and makes for impoverished policy making” Indeed. And writing in the same book Donald Kennedy adds that a “broadly spread citizen understanding of science and technology is a public good…” which we cannot have enough of. Science deals with in- science communication and there are rules and regulations for how research findings are disseminated. Pretty much like a train transportation time table. Traditional media has news holes where once the Editor or producer has put their newscasts or papers to bed, nothing else can go in and also there are timelines for when papers are delivered in the morning and the TV stations and radio stations have program schedules where everything fits like a perfect pack of cards except for breaking news these days but the new media infrastructure provides an opportunity for citizen journalism, no restriction and for micro-news feeds like twitter and snap chat. No one puts it more profoundly than Media Mogul Rupert Murdoch in 2005 when he said those of us who are immigrants to the internet and social media world have to have a new mind set in dealing with it for us to benefit as it changes us all. So what are the differences and similarities between the media and science. I shall talk about this very briefly before we look at our environment and how the nexus of science and the media have advanced discourse, affected society and added to the media landscape while pushing the boundaries of scientific innovations.

Scientists and journalists believe in effectively communicating with society. They both rely on investigation and research to get their work done and they both are interested in accountability, illumination and the public good. They all work on collecting evidence to get their work. The difference between them includes timelines and balance. Where the scientist believes that work must be peer reviewed before it is released, the journalist and media personnel are in the business of immediacy, where the scientist dwells on consensus and holding down positions of authority and expertise, the media believes that balance is key and more often than not in pursuing the balance, have often times provided a balance unacceptable to the scientist where the other person making the comments or debunking a scientific breakthrough may not have enough scientific stripes or even qualifications to comment about a renowned scientists work. Understanding the great work by each other is the only way. The relationship between science and the media is a long discourse and while it is not in a terribly unhealthy place needs more attention because it is such an important relationship and should not be glossed over.

Having spent about thirty-eight years in the media, 35 of which I spent at NTA and rising to the top of my career as Executive Director program at the Nigerian Television authority, I understand how this nexus between the media and science can sometimes seem inoperable but I also know that with our focus on the prize; public awareness, impacting policy and national development, this relationship can be watered and mutually beneficial. Let us take some anecdotes and use some life stories to further validate this address.

It is difficult to believe that the late NTA Foreign news correspondent and one of our finest, Godfrey Odu was a Zoologist, as was my colleague, Newscaster and Producer in NTA Makurdi many years ago, Sam Abah. Legislator and former NTA Petroleum correspondent Chris Anyanwu was famous for unraveling the water hyacinth issue on the body of water in Lagos. In more recent years, Moji Makanjuola with her knowledge of the sector has made being a Health correspondent an important area of field for most journalists. One of my favorite programmes on the Comedy Central Television Network is “The big bang theory”. This is science being taught with humor by actors who are cast as quirky but very funny Professors and they make us want more. My young daughters are inspired by the science in there and the humor helps them to learn.

In my long and rewarding career in the media, I have been blessed by this juxtaposition of Media and science meeting some of the very powerful and impactful men and women in science. Professor Omigbodun and I served on the Lagos state innovation council under the chairmanship of the former Vice chancellor of the University of Ibadan, Professor BAMIRO. From our several meetings, Professor Omigbodun invited me to facilitate training on Public communications for public relation officers for participating universities for CARTA in Nairobi Kenya for two years. That nexus between Media and Science became apparent when the Public Relations officers from universities across the African sub-region began to talk about the challenges of getting Professors of science to speak to the media about ground breaking work that should come to the public’s attention, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Our many challenges also came to the fore when the respected Professor Idachaba of blessed memory invited me to teach English to science students at the then Federal University Makurdi. Students of science at the time thought English was a waste of their time but I was able to convince them that as long as scientific journals were neither written in Igbo nor Ebira, they needed to take my course to even pass their degree. Those were some of my memorable years.

The media can benefit immensely from the science world and vice versa. Till date some of my favorite TV programs reside on National Geographic, Animal Kingdom, Discovery and Crime and Investigation. I sometimes wonder if I would not have been an excellent Forensic psychologist. These are people using their knowledge to catch criminals. I am intrigued by how this knowledge is captured on media and how I am becoming a bit of an expert by listening to these stories well told by scriptwriters and film makers and supported by a researcher team who would often have scientists as part of this team. With a certificate in Guidance and Counseling, I believe that there is much that can be done in media (with the support and assistance of scientists) in the area of depression, anxiety and psychiatry. CI shows me it is possible. There are many shared opportunities between behavioral scientists, psychiatrists and Media in furtherance of Humanity.

Let us look at the gaps.
The scientist thinks the journalist over-sensationalizes and overhypes a puritanical discipline like science. In some instances, they think the journalists misrepresents them and turns serious research work into short pieces or takes press releases out of context. The journalist on the other hand thinks science is uninteresting and boring and scientists do not want to speak about their work or have no skills to do so. A lot of researchers’ and scientists do not take seriously their peers who are romancing the media. Carl Sagan, the well known astronomer who presented and produced the very popular, internationally recognized television programme Cosmos, to make astronomy accessible to us all, was denied membership of the American Academy of science. Scientists need to understand the role of the media and use the platforms available but often they do not want to come on board or use the platforms and in a lot of instances treat the media like press boys and girls instead of mainstreaming them. It is not enough to create a distance by treating journalists like errand boys and girls for purposes of publicity only, when in fact they can be members of committees within your organizations or on a project to bring their perspective to bear. In all, it is imperative that Journalists get knowledge of what scientists do and scientists get involved in what journalists do. Dr Gupta of CNN has shown the way. Scientists who use media platforms for the benefit of all should be respected, encouraged and not denigrated.

Although these opportunities for partnerships between the media and science are endless and are as varied as the many interesting science disciplines, in a paper such as this we can only take a look at some of them.

Today’s film Industry is wide open for collaborations and partnerships. Institutions with science orientation can collaborate with film producers and scriptwriters to produce films, television programmes and documentaries that break down scientific themes for the purposes of public information should be explored and encouraged. The correlation between science fiction and entertainment is getting bigger by the day and there are economic benefits all round and more importantly, there is public enlightenment. The era when scientists were persons that kept themselves away from the public with a serious outlook that made them unapproachable is long gone. There must be a correlation between the town, the scientist and the industry, where science impacts the private sector which in turn affects the public. This is critical and the scientist must let down his guard to enable some level of media access, which when properly understood will give policy makers an insight and this can only be done through the media. Point of note is that a very serious uncompromising, stone-faced scientist will not make good content for media and the message will be lost. It is time to smile a little and be softer for media outreaches.

The book industry can benefit from a scientist’s research, where there can be some level of co-operation that leads to children’s books on science related issues and young adult books that makes science more relatable. As a young girl, I did not like math because I had an Indian teacher who made it look like poison.
One must look closely at interdisciplinary research between the social sciences and science, between communication disciplines and science.

Scientists must be encouraged to become interns in Media houses so they see how the profession is deployed and vice versa. This exchange of scholars especially at graduate level would encourage mutual respect. It is not enough to insist that graduate students should concentrate on their theses, media and media relations should be given as a one semester course for scientists, as this can only be beneficial to them in the real world and when they become policy makers. Some level of Media is now being taught in some graduate schools in the United States for science related courses and the benefits are apparent.

Media personnel must make time to understand scientists and the protocols in relation to how research work is carried out and occasionally with agreement on both sides to be embedded in some of the research work to enable them not only understand the processes but have a relationship that allows them bring in perspectives for publicity and good reportage of the process under the guidance of the Scientist. Some journalists have shown intellectual laziness in dealing with science and this cannot help both sides of the divide. There are too many opportunities to research and report on including sanitation, aquatic science, fisheries and agriculture, genetically modified agricultural produce, geriatrics and gerontology and many other strategic scientific innovations among several others.

Television is an excellent example of the nexus between Engineering and Television production. In NTA, the Engineer is very knowledgeable about content production and the content producers understand the engineering processes for transmission better. This symbiotic relationship has yielded great television across the world. If it breaks down, then there is poor television.

Other areas of opportunities include Research and Development, Upcycle, development of Apps, cross cultural meetings and Town hall meetings propagating this relationship. The more we meet and discuss these issues the better for us.

No opportunity is more profound than the place where social media and the internet has taken us. If well balanced and properly monitored, this should solve the problem of shrinking science pages in newspapers and media platforms. In order to avoid the tyranny of commercialization where media houses are kowtowing to the money builder which is entertainment, social media, blogs, websites and specialized online presence will play a major role in how newspapers now deploy science information. Note must be made however that with everyone now a citizen journalist, science content has to be well managed on the internet. How content is deployed online is different from how this is done in the newspapers or on television. No one can post a 2,000-word research paper online. This has to be professionally edited by a seasoned media expert with guidance from the scientist or researchers involved.

Scientists can take lectures in media strategies and they should be respected and media persons do not have to be scientists or engineers to understand the innovations a little more and push the envelope in their place of work. I do not believe that scientists should continue in the trajectory where they do not trust journalists by making their work so complex and full of jargon when explaining it that it seems deliberate to obliterate everyone else.
It is critical that Scientists allow themselves the opportunity to pick up these skills and some tips on how to deal with the media so they do not look bored, uncomfortable or uninterested when they are dealing with the media.

Science journalists must begin to step up their game and professionalize in the areas they choose so they become expert in the fields and scientists can help by offering scholarships and support. The Guardian newspapers was quite famous when it first berthed for professionalizing science journalism, having an agriculture expert on the Agriculture desk and a pharmacist on the health desk. It is beautiful when both disciplines merge in this way. Ordinary citizens and policy makers are the better for it. The media personnel must also pull themselves up by the bootstrap and be ready to seek knowledge and improve themselves in the science area of field. They must realize that scientists are generally very serious people even though they have an incredible sense of humor but they must ensure that they are not randomly dressed in order for scientists to take them seriously.

The capacity of staff of Public relations departments of ivory towers must as a matter of urgency be built and budgets must be provided to enable them function better.

To increase the ability of scientists to communicate with the media and the media to communicate better with scientists, there should be increased opportunity for each group to experience firsthand what the other group does. Nothing can be better than a synergy between two powerful groups. Communication is about entering each other’s community to enhance national development.

I thank you for your attention and Congratulations to all the winners tonight!