The Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, has hailed a partnership to strengthen science journalism training in South Africa, saying this would greatly assist in increasing effective science communication in the country.

Addressing the South African National Editors' Forum (SANEF) Science Journalism Colloquium at the University of the Witwatersrand on Friday, 12 September, the Minister said effective science communication was vital for the development of South Africa.

The colloquium is a collaboration between the Department of Science and Technology (DST), SANEF and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and is looking at increasing the teaching of science journalism at South African universities at undergraduate, postgraduate and professional development levels.

This follows an engagement the Minister undertook with SANEF in April 2011 to promote science journalism in the country. Subsequently, there has been a gradual increase in science reporting in Business Day,Beeld and the Independent Newspapers group, and on SABC radio and television stations.

As several studies have shown that many journalists lack the numerical skills to interpret statistics and data, the partnership was urged to consider giving all journalism students a measure of science literacy by exposing them to important fields of thought and selected theories of science and science communication. In this way, journalists could be empowered with the skills they require to report on statistical data, particularly in respect of the health sciences, bioethical matters and environmental science. This will also improve relations between researchers and journalists by fostering better communication between the two groups. 

The Minister cited topical issues such as HIV and AIDS, the Ebola outbreaks and Prof. Tim Noakes's eating plan. He said journalists should focus on the facts when science and technology companies make claims for their products or drugs. Journalists needed to understand politics and follow debates in Parliament where policy is made and budgets are discussed; interpreting the debates for laypersons and explaining how their money is to be spent.

"What we are asking SANEF to do is to partner with us in profiling some of our achievements in science and technology and, more importantly, help us raise public awareness about science and its value by publishing more of the fascinating stories about how our world works; this will stimulate young people to take maths and science at school and pursue careers in science-related fields," said the Minister.

The Minister told the gathering about a number of successful projects that the Department was involved in, including building the world's largest radio telescope – the Square Kilometre Array – research into HIV and TB, the launch of new satellites, and the successful partnerships South Africa has with the international community.

Prof. George Claassen, who runs the science journalism school at Stellenbosch University, shared with the gathering some of the mistakes that journalists commonly make in writing science stories; for example, accentuating the positive and ignoring the negative.

"We also have to emphasise the negative – this is why there are pamphlets in medicine packages about possible side-effects." He cited the dietary claims made by Prof. Tim Noakes, which he said were mostly based on anecdote, not scientific data.

"Anecdotal evidence can be good, but it is not the alpha and omega. What does scientific evidence say? Journalists tend to ignore scientific research, and further research is needed on many issues. I also tell journalists to avoid using the word 'breakthrough' in their stories, because that is often not really the case."

Incorrect interpretation of numbers was also problematic; size does matter when it comes to amounts. In addition, journalists should take care not to ignore conflicts of interest by only reporting on research results that are in the interests of their readers.

Journalists should also be able to distinguish between science and pseudoscience. They had to acquire some measure of scientific literacy in important fields of thought.

"We teach students about scientific methods, how science works, what research to trust, and how to evaluate research findings and avoid jargon. However, scientists should also learn to communicate in layperson terms," said Prof. Claassen.

The event was also attended by Prof. Anton Harber, head of the Wits School of Journalism, SANEF President Mathata Tsedu, academics involved in journalism and DST officials.