South Africa

Coronavirus: Op-Ed

Covid-19 ‘hysteria’ highlights lack of quality science journalism 

President Donald J. Trump speaks to the media after meeting Republican lawmakers to discuss plans for his coronavirus economic package in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, 10 March 2020. EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO

Fake news and overwhelming amounts of information available on the internet make it difficult for South African audiences to distinguish fact from fiction and real science from pseudoscience and downright quackery.

We all know that science news reporting in the South African media does not enjoy the same status as other beats such as politics, crime, sport and business. It is hardly surprising that politicians like Julius Malema, businessmen like Markus Jooste, and convicted criminals like Nicolas Ninow, grace our lead pages more often than any scientist or researcher in South Africa.

Until now. Covid-19, or the coronavirus, has hit South African shores, along with mass public hysteria from all corners of the country. Retailers and pharmacies are battling to keep up with demand for hand sanitisers and surgical masks, as stock flies off the shelves amid increasing panic over the spread of the virus.

People are sharing fake news, unverified information and even memes about the virus on social media and confusion has become the order of the day. Calls for calm from government, international organisations and local medical professionals have fallen on deaf ears as we continue to raid pharmacies for supplies.

The coronavirus has presented the ideal opportunity to have a frank discussion about the current state of science journalism in South Africa. In an age where knowledge journalism and quality content has been replaced with celebrity news, horoscopes, astrology columns and the sex lives of prominent people in our society, we know more about the Kardashians than we do about our chances of contracting Covid-19 in South Africa.

A 2004 study by a student at Stellenbosch University, found that only 2% of editorial content in the country’s top publications is dedicated to science news.

Considering the power of the media to influence public perceptions and to assist the government, business and consumers in making informed choices, specialist science journalists are vital to assist in and improve the public’s understanding of science.

According to the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report in 2012, the quality of South Africa’s science and maths education has been rated second to last globally.

This has a great impact on science literacy in a country where about 20% of adults are illiterate, more than a quarter of the adult population unemployed and very few teenagers graduate from high school with university-level science or maths passes, according to the same report.

This paints a grim picture as most people in South Africa do not understand the impact of science on their daily lives, rendering them unable to react to Covid-19 reasonably. Fake news and overwhelming amounts of information available on the internet make it difficult for South African audiences to distinguish fact from fiction and real science from pseudoscience and downright quackery.

It would be interesting to see how many people still believe in former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s claims that beetroot and garlic work better against HIV/Aids than anti-retroviral treatment. It would be even more interesting to see which “remedies” emerge for Covid-19.

To make matters worse, there are those who spend their time purposefully creating confusing content, rather than adding value to the news industry in the country.

Many have lamented the insufficiency of science journalists due to budget constraints, human resources challenges and the “juniorisation” of newsrooms. Science is also not considered sexy enough to make it into the news and most people consider science too difficult for “normal people” to understand.

Thus, the importance of good science journalism cannot be overstated.

Science can save lives, but the incorrect reporting of science can also lead to the loss of life. Thus it is of the utmost importance that journalists, and not only specialist science journalists, equip themselves with critical thinking skills to ensure audiences receive high quality, reliable news.

Science communicators and researchers, who can quell the confusion, should open the doors to their institutions and help journalists fall in love with telling well-researched and accurate stories – about Covid-19 as well as other significant events.

Scientific research often remains locked away in ivory towers or hidden away in complex, dense and difficult-to-understand academic studies, where the public has no access. In the public interest, journalists must bring this research to everyone in South Africa – to avoid the mass hysteria we’ve been seeing this past week.

  • Lali van Zuydam is a science journalist, science journalism researcher and advocate for knowledge journalism. She completed her MA Journalism thesis at Stellenbosch University on the state of science journalism in South Africa. 
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