World Federation of Science Journalists

WFSJ matchmakes scientists and journalists on Skype


January 11, 2008

Christina Scott

Mentor Armand Faye in Dakar, Sénégal and myself in Cape Town, South Africa have been running weekly Skype press conferences on Saturday mornings to bring together prominent scientists across Africa with members of the mentoring programme, Science Journalism Cooperation (SjCOOP), run by the World Federation of Science Journalists. The weekly conference is an innovation that improves science journalism and interaction between journalists and scientists across the continent.

What's it been like? What are these things, anyhow?
A Skypecast is a lot like a press conference where the reporter has to signal that you want a turn at the microphone. Only this signal is a click of your mouse, moving you from listening to waiting, where the observant host will (hopefully) switch on your sound. ''Interesting, although there were technical glitches during most of the sessions,'' is how Onche Odeh, a print journalist from Lagos, Nigeria, assesses the Skypecasts. ''It afforded me the opportunity of expanding my database of scientists in Africa and the various sessions also gave me good stories that were accorded good space in my medium. It feels good seeing my contributions on various internet sites. However, I wish it could be easier logging in.''

Waleed Al-Shobakky, the science journalist and blogger from Doha, Qatar, says Skypecasts ''take a little getting used to because it is different from in-person meetings or ones over the phone. It is best to have a moderator to keep everyone in track in terms of both questions and answers. Without this it would be too easy to stray into different directions.''

Although Onche finds Skypechat, the written version, less real compared to a Skypecast, it also has its advantages. It is brilliant for people who are not confident of their spoken command of French or English, as they have time to shape a sentence and erase bits before hitting send. But a Skypechat has a very unusual rhythm: three or four questions can come in at the same time, and the hapless guest has to either inform everyone that it will be done in chronological order, or preface every answer by explaining who the answer is directed at. A bad speller, someone with arthritis or anyone addicted to acronyms is going to cause confusion. And if you don't log out, the transcript can go on forever .....

Skype has many advantages. No longer does science communication require visa arguments and jet lag for a big international conference, or a hair-raising journey across town and countryside in unreliable public transport, or traffic jams.

''I couldn't believe that 2 hours had gone past so quickly. I wanted to carry on chatting because it was so interesting,'' said Margie Wolff of SciFest Africa, the continent's biggest science festival. ''I don't think it would work as well if it was done during a working day because that would be too distracting. It is very cool technology and should be used more and more.''

We could sit in front of our computers (assuming there were no power failures) and put on our headsets (assuming we'd tested our microphones and had downloaded the latest version of Skype) and bridge time zones, hemispheres, and even languages. When it works, it's magic.

''Skype creates the flexibility for scientists to be interviewed by science journalists at their convenience and I think this is very real,'' says Esther Nakkazi, a Ugandan reporter currently studying at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The time zones meant that she sometimes stayed up all night in order to attend a Skypecast - which suggests another advantage. The renowned researcher can't tell if you're in your pyjamas.

''I did like the fact that no one could see me,'' said Margaret Wolff of SciFest, in South Africa. ''It made me feel ok, that if I was blushing or pulling funny faces no one would see!'' And because Skypecast hosts control the microphone, as opposed to a conference call where everyone is online, nobody can tell if you've snuck off for a coffee break in the middle of the debate ... unless your silence becomes overwhelming and the host starts sending separate Skype text messages ordering you to ask a question NOW.

Esther noted that voice-over-internet-protocol is not as intimidating as a press conference, and breaks down the bureacratic barriers that sometimes make scientists impossible to contact for clarification. ''With Skype you can get to the scientist and cross-check any information once you see them online which is very easy.''

After interviewing South African palaeontologist Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan on dinosaur fossils in East Africa, Esther noted, Skype ''also allowed us to interview scientists beyond our borders in different continents, countries and locations which we would probably not be able to physically reach.''

Aimable Twahirwa of Rwanda liked Skypechats, which don't use voice but rely on written questions and answers among participants. ''It is easy to keep the previous discussion on the forum. I found this technology very reliable,'' he said. Aimable enjoyed the sound quality of Skypecasts and found public Skypecasts, in which anyone can listen in, an improvement on the private Skypecasts in which you needed to know the link, or be asisted into the site.

Yes, the public ones were open to anyone, including unpleasant people. The host can cut the microphone, but it's surprising how much nastiness can spew from a person in a few seconds before their voice vanishes. I found this out the day some idiot kept interrupting with offers of both vaginal and anal rape, and changing his identification and sneaking back into the discussion. (Skype ignored my complaint.) But he was the only crazy.

Many people with an interest in technology are on Skype, which makes it a reasonable audience for us. Many casual bystanders in the Skype world, including a graphic artist from Singapore, looked at the WFSJ website and science media sites as we discussed issues, and in a case from Jordan, one Skyper made contact with local members of the Arab association.

Cost is an issue. An internet café in Ghana asked Frederick Baffour Opoku of Accra for the insane amount of 70 US dollars to use Skype. Charles Mkoka of Malawi had to travel long distances to find an cybercafé with a sound card, only to discover that the owner had not downloaded the latest version of Skype, and he was out in the cold. ''While there have been isolated problems to get linked by Skypecast, it has been fun to talk through voice over internet with sources and fellow journalists in Africa and abroad. That is what the internet age can do, at a fairer deal that using expensive telephones.''