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Bridging Food Scientists and Journalists with Communications Training in the Public Interest

This post was written by David Poulson and originally appeared on The Food Fix.

Phillip Kamwendo finished explaining to a group of African reporters how he used “friendly bacteria” to improve groundnut seeds.

Then the Malawi researcher turned to a nearby team, led by Michigan State University (MSU) experts, flashed them a wide grin and gave them two thumbs up. It was a highlight for our team that had worked for days with Kamwendo and others at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) to refine how to explain their research.

“When he asked the reporters how many of them understood what an inoculant was, I felt like a proud grandmother,” said Emmanuella Delva, a program officer with USAID, the project’s funder, who pitched in on the training.

The work in Malawi was the start of a two-continent, three-country training tour that I’m still on. I just finished work with other scientists — including two MSU alumi — at the Rwanda offices of the International Potato Center to help them explain their research story to funders and others.

Now I’m in Lima, Peru about to do the same thing this week at that center’s South American headquarters.

The work in Malawi was by far the most complex.

First, some context. In addition to my duties as the senior associate director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, I am the director of translational scholars at Michigan State University's Global Center for Food Systems Innovation. For that group, I started and now manage The Food Fix, where student journalists and others report with audio, video and text on international food security. I also help build the capacity of researchers and journalists to tell that story.

The multi-year Malawi project started with MSU higher education experts helping about a dozen LUANAR faculty develop innovative research and other academic projects under the Innovative Scholars Program.

After those projects got underway, I came in to help those faculty and others explain their work to journalists. The idea was to build communications capacity among researchers and reporters to ultimately get the agriculture research before farmers and the general public of Malawi.

Among those accompanying me was Amol Pavangadkar, director of Sandbox Studios and a senior specialist with the Media Information Department at MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences. We are longtime collaborators on workshops to train journalists, and his team of students produce videos for The Food Fix.

Rounding out the Malawi team are:

  • Bill Heinrich, director of assessment at MSU’s Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology, who is among the MSU experts who developed, who taught the Innovative Scholars Program;
  • Kurt Richter, assistant director of MSU’s Global Center for Food Systems Innovation and who oversees the overall capacity-building effort;
  • Candice Bailey, an editor with The Conversation-Africa, a news service that helps academic researchers report their work for a lay audience in Africa;
  • Eric Crawford, director of both MSU’s Global Center for Food Systems Innovation and the university’s Food Security Group; and
  • Emmanuela Delva, USAID’s program manager for our Global Center for Food Systems Innovation.

We worked with LUANAR faculty for two days. Amol showed them how to bring greater attention to their research with basic video skills. I taught them to write and speak simply, concisely and jargon-free, and why they should. We had them write and rewrite their explanations and practice them repeatedly.

They got feedback from our team and from their peers. Some of it was hard. During the practice sessions, I never understood Kamwendo’s research and told him so. His ultimate success was a real victory.

Meanwhile, Flora Nankhuni, who works in Malawi with MSU’s Food Security Group, and her colleague Athur Mabiso, from the International Food Policy Research Institute, exposed some Malawi journalists to agricultural challenges and solutions. Amol and I also met with them early in the week. I explained how to turn a scientific study into a news story and I showed them some Malawi-relevant research produced by a MSU scientist and that is ripe for a news story in Malawi.

The plan was that once both groups received some training, we’d bring the two programs together on the LUANAR campus for an event modeled after the round of tours used by the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) at its annual conferences. I’m a longtime SEJ member and serve on its board. Knight Center-affiliated faculty have led tours and served on panels at that event for many years.

The 31 journalists rotated in small groups between our now-trained researchers. Each faculty member got at least five times to explain their research. The reporters also visited LUANAR research sites, including an experimental dipping station to kill ticks in goats. There are a lot of goats in Malawi — eight million — and the technology might also be used on the country’s growing problem with stray dogs. Other stops included a seed sorting and cleaning operation, one of the World Bank’s aquaculture research stations and a field trial of a drip irrigation system.

And LUANAR faculty and journalists observed a lively panel discussion by university officials and journalists about the challenges of reporting university research to the public.

The week ended with a daylong workshop by Amol and myself with just the journalists. We brainstormed story ideas from the week’s events and discussed interesting issues like whether it is ethical for a journalist to report on an innovation before the idea was patented and therefore vulnerable to theft.

The consensus: if innovators are talking about it, we’re reporting it. A news story is unlikely to contain the details needed for intellectual theft, and it could well inspire someone else to build upon that idea.

The journalists were thrilled by Amol’s presentation on shooting effective video. The biggest plus was that he could demonstrate how to get great results from minimal equipment.

Me? I edited. A lot.

Quite often, three or four reporters watched over my shoulder as I worked on their colleague’s story.  As soon as I finished, another would give me a story and say, “Do that to mine.” It was an experience that in terms of satisfaction surpassed even Kamwendo’s thumbs up to our team.

I asked the journalists to send me links to their work. Some of them are radio journalists, so I hope to get their audio files. We’ll post them on The Food Fix as they allow.

The week that ended just in time for me to move on alone to the next challenge in Rwanda.

And now ahead of me is another challenge with the potato experts in Peru.

Meanwhile, I just heard from a radio reporter in Malawi. She sent me the audio files of three stories for a radio station claiming four million listeners. She said we can use them on The Food Fix.

She adds: “And by the way, would (you) also entertain further stories with a touch of nutrition, agriculture and food security on your news website? Please let me know.”


David Paulson is the editor of The Food Fix and senior associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism and director of the translational scholars program at the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation.