Food Security Policy Innovation Lab

Improving collaboration between food security and nutrition researchers and the media: an effort for policy change

19 August 2016

Tensions between researchers and the media often create barriers to bringing about policy change that is informed by evidence. Researchers are cautious of the possibility of their work being misrepresented by journalists because of the sensationalised nature of media. Communicating scientific-based evidence to the media is often an area that scientists prefer to steer clear of. Scientists fail to see the media as an avenue that they can use to facilitate public understanding of science. Similarly, journalists often refrain from engaging researchers because they feel that researchers are unapproachable, unable to use simple terms to communicate their research and are patronising. However, there is a greater need for collaboration between the two, not only to bring about evidence-based food security policy change, but also to improve public awareness of emerging research that can influence food security.

The training session formed part of the USAID-funded Feed the Future Innovation Lab on Food Security Policy that the University of Pretoria partners on with Michigan State University and the International Food Policy Research Institute. One goal of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy Programme is to influence food security policy by building the capacity of the media to report on food security policy issues.

The workshop also provided an opportunity for building the skills of young female scientists who participated in the workshop under a peer learning programme grant awarded to Dr Nokuthula Vilakati (a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being) by the British Council Newton Fund through the Academy of Science of South Africa. 

A two-day training workshop was held in Pretoria in June. The purpose of the workshop was to strengthen the relationship between media and researchers in an effort to improve reporting on emerging research in food security. Participants included researchers together with print and radio media personnel from Malawi, South Africa and Zambia.

Anina Mumm, a science communication and digital media specialist with ScienceLink co-facilitated the training with Dr. Vilakati. “The motivation for the workshop was connected to the Department of Science and Technology (DST) Framework for Science Engagement that aims to popularise science as attractive, relevant and accessible in order to enhance scientific literacy and make it more relevant by engaging the media in communicating scientists work” said Vilakati. Elizabeth Mkandawire, a PhD candidate, Prof. Hettie Schönfeldt from the University of Pretoria and Dr. Mangani Katundu, a researcher from Chancellor College in Malawi, presented sessions on food security research findings. The media were encouraged to prepare written pieces on the presentations as well as the actual training.

The workshop provided a platform for journalists and researchers to identify the communication barriers between the two groups. The journalists were of the opinion that, researchers are “arrogant and patronising” and that they are “too protective and overly sensitive about their work.” The researchers shared that journalists often lack the capacity to conduct investigative journalism, they “do not always take account of the damage that may ensue from misinformation” and they “lack an understanding of science principles (i.e. do not always understand the scientific process)”. Both parties agreed that it is important that “Researchers should not be scared to work with media to communicate their work, not only at the end of the research, but through the whole process to create a deeper understanding of science by journalists”. Reflecting on the training, Lihle Ngwane from the University of Pretoria said, “I have learned that journalists can sell good news and exposes the work done by researchers to the public.” It was also agreed upon that “Scientists should also refrain from being too technical and think of the target market when communicating scientific findings”.

It was agreed that there is need for more training of this nature because strengthening these relationships has implications for policy-makers and the public at large. One of the journalists, Benadetta Chiwanda reflected that the training “has taught me the need for joint efforts between researchers and journalists because a good relationship is crucial as some important research findings that could have been used for the greater good of the public gather dust in archives for lack of proper channels (media) to take such information to the public (or relevant people)”.

After the workshop, several of the participants produced reports for their media houses. These included print media as well as radio broadcasts. These pieces can be accessed using the links below:

Bridging science and media by Benadetta Chiwanda, Power 101

Local maize varieties for dealing with climate change by Rhoda Msiska, Voice of Livingstonia 

Scientists work in silos, hoarding information that could benefit the public by Rhoda Msiska, Voice of Livingstonia 

Focus on disease prevention rather than cure by Kabanda Chulu, Zambia Daily Mail

Battle for seed and who should control it?  by Ephraim Nyondo, the Nation Malawi

Draft seed policy: What are the threats? by Ephraim Nyondo, the Nation Malawi

Fifteen years on, Irrigation Act still gathering dust  by Ephraim Nyondo, the Nation Malawi

How government is killing irrigation agriculture by Ephraim Nyondo, the Nation Malawi

Government moves beyond current food shortage by Ephraim Nyondo, the Nation Malawi