A room full of sweaty press officers, at the World Conference of Science Journalists, eager to learn more about the international media climate and how achieve ‘Global Coverage for Science’ weren’t expecting to hear about powerful and rich PRs in Nigeria. But these sessions often contain surprises, and after being lulled into the international media scene with case studies on outreach to international media by British Antarctic Survey’s Linda Capper we met journalists Mohammad Kaswar Uddin from Bangladesh and Diran Onifade who took us further from our comfort zones.
According to Uddin science journalism is not yet recognised in much of South Asia, and media often reel out the government line. Health and science are more likely to be translated versions of UK, US, Canadian or Australian news articles. But this seems tame compared to Diran Onifade’s depiction of a corrupt media where in order to achieve coverage money needs to change hands. PR, it seems, can involve more negotiation skills than many of us currently employ.
With costs increasing and the PR middlemen benefiting more than anyone else in the equation, some are earning more than their CEOs. Diran tells us that we can write as many press releases as we like but a great photo of your CEO with, say, Bill Gates, would make more of a splash as you could pay to have it appear on the front pages.
But, let’s not forget this is a skills building workshop, intended to help find solutions rather than wallow in problems. What are the answers? How can this grim picture improve?
Certainly one solution offered for the South Asian scene is that UK and other developed world press officers could help with training and mentoring (count me in!). For Nigeria and other nations with corrupt media the picture seems more complex but there is light at the end of this tunnel.
Capacity building is crucial to improving the scene. Onifade says he’s been inspired by the force of the Arab Science Journalism Association and that different African countries’ associations are looking to merge and create a powerful network.
Previous President of the Arab Science Journalism Association, Nadia El Awady was also on the panel and agreed that although training is key the language barrier is a huge problem in her region. Her Association’s media list is a fantastic tool to help local reporters understand material that is rarely provided in their mother tongue. Members forward information, with a short summary of what it is, why it’s important and if it’s relevant in the region. Discussion follows and other members add further translation and information.
The panel pondered issues of mentoring, and organisations like SciDev.net and the International Development Research Council who provide similar services for journalists but not press officers.
Training of press officers is vital also in Latin America where Luisa Massarani says journalists are hungry for stories but can have trouble finding them. PRs are uncommon and have low self esteem in her region. Currently they have to look to international science if they are to feed their editors’ and readers’ thirst.
The message of the morning seems that the problems are similar wherever you look and that press officers wanting to achieve the desirable ‘Global Coverage for science’ need to understand the landscape in the target region, provide translation of material, or translators for interviews. First and foremost though is training. Training of reporters. Training of press officers. And training of scientists to speak out about their work.