Just about everyone agrees that it’s a good idea to train health journalists so that their work is more accurate, more relevant to readers and listeners, and more focused on the important issues. But what does this training actually accomplish on the ground: does it lead to better health for citizens?
Last year, Internews asked health communications expert Elizabeth Gold and me to examine this question. It was a hard one to answer, because there’s not that much data on training health journalists in developing countries, which was our focus.
We did find some: we read a range of reports and evaluations from academic researchers, and from groups including ICFJ/Knight International Journalism Fellowships, Internews and BBC Media Action. We looked at more than 30 groups, most of which got funding from the U.S. or Europe.
Gold and I examined a range of programs: training and mentoring projects, fellowships, journalist networks, as well as social media and other new models. Some of these programs were short-term – a few days or weeks – while others were longer term – months or years.
Overall, we found that good health journalism can have a powerful influence on health policy and behavior. A few examples:
- In Senegal and Uganda, the media has over the years reported regularly about how risky sexual behavior could lead to HIV infection. Rural radio stations got the message out to their illiterate audience on the importance of condoms and monogamy. This is likely a major reason these countries have lower HIV rates than some other sub-Saharan African countries.
- In South Africa, the media reported relentlessly on the fact that HIV-positive children did not have access to medicine or education. In response, the government and donors changed their policies, and these kids now have a much better chance of getting treatment and schooling.
- Sometimes one outlet can make a difference with just a few stories. In 2011, the Daily Trust, the most widely-read newspaper in northern Nigeria, ran a series on the main hospital in Abuja, where many expectant mothers had to wait hours or days for treatment, sometimes sleeping on floors. In response, the hospital installed a computerized appointment system and hired 700 new workers. Voila – wait times went down.
- In 2011, Internews’ Voices in Health project focused on a severe condom shortage in parts of Kenya (people had to wash and reuse them). After the report came out, donors and the government quickly sent condom supplies to the area.
We also found that certain kinds of training seem to be more effective. Long-term programs and on-going peer-mentor networks are more likely to give journalists the skills and resources to explain and illuminate complex health issues.
The long-term approach is epitomized by the Voices in Health* program, which trained and mentored Kenyan radio and TV journalists to report on HIV and other health issues over from 2003-2012. The project created resource centers where journalists can access the web and production studios to research and produce stories, and offers grants for in-depth investigations in rural areas.
That’s not to say that this is the only approach that works. Groups such as the African Health Journalists Association can also help, and the role of social media will only grow as more people and more journalists get connected.
It’s clear that the subject needs a lot more study. Simply measuring the number of journalists trained – a common way of tabulating a program’s impact – doesn’t really get at how training helps a society improve health. We need to rigorously evaluate exactly what works and what doesn’t, so we can do more to help health journalists do their jobs in the places where health is most precarious.
*Note: Internews continues with its health journalism training in Kenya through its Health Media Project.