Science Reporting: We Beg to Differ Christina Scott Presenter/producer Science Matters, SAfm radio Thursdays – www.safm.co.za Associate editor: science, Mail & Guardian newspaper – www.mg.co.za Email: email@example.com Skype: christina.scott.cape.town
Scientists’ brains do not work the same way that journalists’ brains do … COMMUNICATING ASTRONOMY WITH THE PUBLIC CAPE TOWN MARCH 2010
Scientists’ concept of time is not the same as journalists’ concept of deadlines
Monday Paper archives Scientists’ concept of accuracy is not the same as journalists’ New sites acknowledge UCT's diverse heritage The chequered past: Prof Howard Phillips (far left), tour leader, and Prof Njabulo Ndebele take guests on the first walk along the Heritage Trail on September 7.The University of Cape Town boasts, as Historical Studies' Professor Howard Phillips would have it, a "contested heritage".The land it occupies was once used by Khoisan pastoralists to graze their cattle, was later converted into farmland by Dutch and British colonists and their slaves, before, in 1918, it became home to UCT. The university's very founders also come with baggage - Cecil John Rhodes, whose gift of land made the erection of UCT on this site possible, is the perfect example of one man's captain of enterprise being another man's imperialist. Depending on who you speak to, he and other historical figures are either heroes or villains, respected or reviled. Or, for the undecided, both at the same time. So, too, the actions of UCT individuals or the body corporate during South Africa's bedevilled past are either condemned, or showered with praise. It's a heavy burden for any institution to carry into a newfound democracy. But it's one, new building names or not, the university is stuck with. So, instead of glossing over that history, as the institution is often accused of doing, the vice-chancellor, Professor Njabulo Ndebele, has decided to air it for debate. "It's about laying fresh foundations for the next 175 years," he says. A few months back, Ndebele set up a Heritage Committee to organise a crop of events that coincided with the heritage month celebrations in the country. Under the heritage @ uct banner, the committee, assisted by some postgraduate students, ran a four-seminar series that examined different aspects of heritage (see more on that inside), and the theme of Music of South Africa was selected for the two Vice-Chancellor's Concerts that will be staged this week. It also developed a Heritage Trail that looks at the history and symbolism on the Groote Schuur Campus. The vice-chancellor officially launched the Heritage Trail on September 7. This self-guided trail (maps are available from the Visitors' Information Centre on upper campus) comprises 18 sites, each clearly marked with a heritage@uct sign. The trail starts at Japonica Walk, which runs alongside the Kramer Law Building on middle campus, and ends with Mechanical Man, a 1965 sculpture by Lippy Lipschitz, outside Snape Building on upper campus. Along the way there are stops at, among other places, the Summer House (where Rhodes and his guests sought relief from the summer heat) and the rugby field, at the oft-vandalised Rhodes' statue and at the recently-named Cissy Gool Plaza and Molly Blackburn Hall, both memorialising two of South Africa's more latter-day heroes. "UCT, through its history, has inherited many layers of heritage - we need to engage with this history and understand how it has evolved over time through the various political and social dispensations," says Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, chair of the heritage committee. That engagement started early when comments were scrawled on one of the heritage signs soon after it went up. Even that act of vandalism is an "engagement" of sorts, says Chinsamy-Turan, although a more constructive outlet for responses had already been set up. Comments on the sites and UCT heritage broadly, as well as offers of photographic memorabilia, can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Heritage Committee Prof Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, Dr James Gain, Dr Harry Garuba, Angela Gilbert, Skye Grove, Jared Licina, Campbell Lyons, Dr Gary Marsden, Prof Raj Mesthrie, Prof Njabulo Ndebele, Prof Howard Phillips, Royston Pillay, Prof John Parkington, Dr Sam Radithalo, Medee Rall, Prof Pippa Skotnes and Wendy van Schalkwyk
Scientists’ sense of appropriate language is not the same as journalists’ sense of language, part 1
Scientists’ sense of appropriate language is not the same as journalists’ sense of language, part 2
Scientists’ sense of the intended audience doesn’t match the demographics of the country. At all.
English is not the language of science. Understanding is the language of science. Science journalism is about translation.
Actually, covering science the way we cover sports is not such a bad idea. Lots of pictures, lots of action, emphasis on teamwork, feel-good stuff when we win. We could choose another beat
Science reporting = sports reporting? • After all, scientists represent our country, the same way that our athletes do. And we’re really good in some fields of science.
Did you send out a press release? • A South African/Azerbaijani/Kenyan astronomer/astronomy educator/ is flying out of the country/has flown out of the country/is returning to the country today to attend/after attending his/her/their first/first African meeting to dramatically increase public enthusiasm about exploring the universe.
Did you send out a press release? • ‘This meeting opened up wonderful opportunities for local astronomers/astronomy educators/teachers/students/people,’’ said the where-born first name surname, who is based at the XYZ institution in city/region. • This was his/her first trip to South Africa/Africa/Cape Town which is hosting/hosted the international Communicating Astronomy with the Public event for the first time.
Did you send out a press release? • Next paragraph is about what you’re going to do when you get home and when and where. • Next paragraph: all your contact details including home numbers, direct lines, Skype, email, websites and cellphone. • Send it to your local media by email, cut and pasted into the text – NO ATTACHMENTS except possibly for a high-resolution photograph of yourself.
Geography • Media assess science stories based on where you were born, where you studied and where you live or work. If you don’t tell them this information, the story goes into the black hole. • Most media do not assess science stories based on whether it got into Nature or not.
We could learn to accept our differences … and negotiate a truce • Scientist: slow, careful with every word, frightened of reporters, guarding his or her reputation, worried what other scientists will say when the story appears. Thinks everyone already has a PhD. Thinks everyone knows the word ‘’geodesy.’’ Thinks he or she is too busy to be interviewed. Puts conclusions at the end. • Reporter: puts conclusions at the beginning. Replication is fast and sloppy, understands his or her target audience far better than the science involved. Knows how to grab the attention of a reluctant audience. Needs to explain to the taxpayer what’s being done with their money – in ways that make sense to the taxpaper. Has five minutes left before deadline.
One possible solution: use a stopwatch • I often draft the rough outline of a story while I trying to track down the researchers. • I do not allow scientists to insist on a face-to-face interview (especially when they live in Uganda.. I do not allow publicly funded scientists to say no to an interview … unless they’re giving birth. • I normally refuse to spend more than five minutes in an interview. • I often spend five minutes beforehand explaining who, what, when, why. • I often spend five minutes afterwards repeating the information back to the scientist to see if we are on the same planet, and getting every single contact number. • I read the story back to him/her. Then we fight. Then we publish. And I always, always ask dumb questions! Science is too big to know everything.
Who speaks to the press? Check out … • www.ScienceinAfrica.com Editor: Professor Janice Limson, Rhodes University, South Africa Email: email@example.com
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