Christina Scott (1961 – 2011): Passionate science journalist, interrupted mid-sentence…

Christina Scott: A funny story always got funnier when she related it...

I was travelling in the Himalayan Republic of Nepal when I heard the sad news: Christina Scott, a pioneering science journalist from South Africa, has just been killed in a road accident. She would have turned 50 on November 20.

As Mike Shanahan, whose tweet broke the sad news of Christina’s hasty departure, wrote: there is one star less in Africa.

Christina’s tragic and abrupt departure elicited an outpouring of grief, memories and tributes from science journalists, scientists and others who knew and admired her. I’m late to join that, I know, but here’s the slightly expanded version of what I just posted on SciDev.Net as a reader comment:

“Short, stroppy reporter with a funny accent. Likes to eat sushi. No head for alcohol and caffeine addiction.” That’s how Canadian-born Christina chose to introduce herself. Everyone has an anecdote about her, reminding us of the colourful and highly talented person she was.

Christina was passionate, articulate and had a clear vision of how science, technology and innovation could make a difference to millions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America. She made science fun. She was also great fun to work with.

Christina and I didn’t meet that often, separated as we are by time zones and the Indian Ocean. But our few encounters — usually at professional gatherings of science journalists — left a deep impression.

We first met at the Fifth World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne in April 2007, where we were both speakers.

She and I were part of a memorable plenary session on ‘Reporting Science in Emerging Economies’ that was put together by SciDev.Net and produced by Julie Clayton. It had science journalists or editors from Brazil, China, India, Sri Lanka and Zambia.

It was Christina who came up with a novel idea to dim the meeting hall lights just as we started. In the semi-darkness, she lit a single cigarette lighter to symbolise how science journalists in the developing world struggled daily with power outages, poor literacy, unsympathetic editors and uncaring governments.

Earlier in that conference, Christina compared some of her professional tribe to extremophile bacteria: hardy enough to survive in very harsh environments. The broad conclusion from our session was that, just as life finds a way against many odds, so does science journalism. In conditions far from ideal, science journalism happens — and even thrives — thanks to the resilience, resourcefulness and commitment of its practitioners.

Christina Scott (left) making a point. Photo courtesy WFSJ

Christina excelled in communicating science through print, web and broadcast media. She switched easily between written and spoken words, and could hold an audience in any medium. Such multimedia journalists are rare.

But she didn’t allow the technology ‘tail’ to wag the journalism ‘dog’. In 2007, she was still wondering if Internet, computes and online communications could make much headway in reaching out a majority of South Africans. It wasn’t a lack of connectivity and computers any longer, but a more basic absence of electricity in many remote areas.

To her, old fashioned radio was still the most cost-effective way to reach more people quickly. That was also her favourite medium, one in which she did some of most memorable coverage.

Christina had a fine sense of theatrical performance to engage a live audience. She knew just how to shook and hook them. She had no time or patience for political correctness or euphemisms; she just spoke truth to power.

I learnt much by being in her audience, or sharing a platform with her. It was exhilarating to see how she engaged audiences full of jaded and sceptical journalists.

Once, during a panel discussing HIV/AIDS, she asked her audience how many were aged over 50 years. A few hands went up. “In South African terms, chances are you’re already dead,” she declared.

She didn’t have comforting words for those below 35 either: “You’re probably infected with HIV, and don’t know it yet — and go around giving it to others!”
That’s how she summed up the stark realities of South Africa, which has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world. She then personalized, with a wish was that her daughter, then 15, would get through college without contracting HIV.

Christina Scott was a supernova who shone bright and fiery. Her trail would continue to blaze for a long time. But we won’t hear that spirited voice, in that funny accent, always ready to tell an interesting story.

Here are links to some tributes found online:

Christina Scott: Editorial by SciDev.Net editor David Dickson Christina Scott, doyenne of African science journalism, dies
by Ehsan Masood

Mail & Guardian: Christina Scott: Farewell to ‘short, stroppy’ giant
by Adele Baleta

Mike Shanahan blog: One less star in Africa tonight

WFSJ Website: Tribute to Christina Scott RIP

Africa STI: Christina Scott, Africa’s Foremost Science Journalist, dies

Facebook Page: Remembering Christina Scott

In Melbourne, April 2007: L to R - To be identified, Christina Scott, Nalaka Gunawardene and T V Padma

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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