World Federation of
Science Journalists

Science journalism training coming to Portuguese-speaking African countries

March 2, 2009 posted in Sci.Journalism
A Lisbon reporter has joined forces with a physicist to train Portuguese-speaking science journalists in Africa and East Timor. The pair is building their program with help from journalists in their own homeland, others from Brazil, and with tips from WFSJ’s mentoring projects.

The project is the brainchild of SiW – Scientists in the World –, an international nonprofit NGO founded in Portugal in 2007 to promote science and technology internationally.

“We don’t know much about the situation of science journalism in Portuguese-speaking African countries and East Timor, we’re still finding out what is going on there … the idea is to promote science journalism on those countries because we suspect that, in some cases, such coverage is just starting,” says Teresa Firmino of the Lisbon daily newspaper Público.

Firmino started writing science stories – everything from dinosaurs to stem cell research – for Público soon after she graduated from Universidade Nova de Lisboa (Lisbon New University) in 1992 with a degree in mass media communication. She is now a 2008-2009 Knight Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, taking part in a sabbatical program for mid-career journalists to reinforce their science-reporting skills.
The radio station on the island of Principe off the west coast of Africa, one of the SiW mentoring sites

Her paper, with a daily circulation of about 50,000, has been covering science energetically since its inception in 1990.

Her project partner is Dr. Yasser Omar, a professor in the mathematics department of ISEG, the Instituto Superior de Economia e Gestão at the Technical University of Lisbon, doing research in quantum information theory. His list of publications deals with quantum mysteries like entanglement and their possible use in communications technology. The two met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2008.

Firmino stresses that “this project was Yasser’s idea” arising out of his experience with SiW and consultations with WFSJ.

For his part, Omar was already pondering how to boost popular science coverage in the media of “lusophone” countries when he met Firmino during his own sabbatical term at MIT. “Teresa was instrumental in making me realize the – now obvious – difference between some science news piece written by a scientist and written by a journalist,” he says.

“Lusophone”? The word refers to countries or people who speak Portuguese. It’s from the ancient word for Portugal, “Lusitânia.” Omar says he’s “always hesitant to use it in English, fearing people will think it’s some cheap phone company or an exotic wind instrument: ‘Really, you play the lusophone?’”

Odd terminology or not, there are about 230 million people speaking Portuguese in the world, with Brazil accounting for most of them, hence the reaching out by SiW and Firmino to Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities looking for mentors to get their project underway.

Their targets are the Portuguese-speaking African countries – Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, and the Sao Tome and Principe islands – as well as East Timor in Southeast Asia. The media of these countries consist essentially of a scattering of newspapers and TV studios and a slew (they counted more than 125) of radio stations, serving about 40 million people.

Firmino will lead the SiW project and has started the search for at least six mentees. “Ideally that would mean one from each lusophone African country, and one from East Timor,” adds Omar. There would be mentors from Portugal and Brazil, and everyone involved would be asked to commit themselves to the project for a year.

The objectives for all the target countries are:
  • to identify science journalists and train them;
  • to increase coverage for science news in their media
  • to encourage the development of new science journalists;
  • to establish a network of Portuguese-speaking science journalists
  • to give exposure to local science and scientists, and, finally,
  • to form a Portuguese-speaking group within the WFSJ
“The goals are long-term, but we want to start slowly and grow steadily,” Omar says.

“We expect to establish partnerships with WFSJ, as well as with media in Portugal and Brazil.”

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