Improving Media Reporting During Epidemic Outbreaks and Empowering Communities

During epidemic outbreaks, such as Ebola in Africa and Zika in Latin America, it is important to keep affected populations duly informed. Proper communication on medical topics can save lives!

Sensationalist news on the contrary can be counterproductive. Fear, panic and collective stress can easily result in even more uncertainty, agitation and eventually additional deaths.

Therefore, what is the best way during such an outbreak to communicate scientific knowledge that reaches the target group ensuring that they will fully understand the information and consequently react to it?

One of the key actions you can undertake is to train the press officers of humanitarian organizations and journalists so they can deliver appropriate and accessible information that encourages preventive behavior.

With this challenge in mind UNESCO’s section for Media Development & Society (MAS) organized a two-day workshop (July 14-15, Panama City) on: Inform, Engage, Investigate. Lessons learned from the Zika outbreak. The attendees were mainly representatives of local radio stations, humanitarian organizations, of United Nations´ affiliated agencies as well as a delegate of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ).

The workshop dynamic included two sessions per day in which the quest speakers presented the topic of their expertise. It allowed the participants to integrate this information into four discussion groups that resulted in new insights about each presented topic. Afterwards, the results were divided into three themes: Concerns, Expectations and Opportunities.


During the first day´s morning session, Ms. Leticia Linn, press officer of the Panamerican Health Organization (PAHO) in Washington, gave an institutional perspective on risk communication, the role of PAHO during a health crisis and on managing the relationship with the media during such a crisis.

Ms. Lucy Calderón, the WFSJ’s representative, introduced the Federation´s main goals, its projects as well as the toolkits on Ebola and Hepatitis C the organization had recently developed. She also underlined the importance of science journalism in communicating hard scientific data to non-specialized audiences.

Ms. Calderón stressed that an important issue in catching the audience´s attention is through sharing success stories and accounts of resilience of people affected by such a crisis. Telling such stories is a great tool to communicate science.

In short, the conclusions of the participants after these discussions were that press officers and journalists must improve their interaction with the people touched by an outbreak. On the one hand, press officers should strive to become reliable, transparent and timely sources of information. Journalists on the other hand should receive accurate facts so that they can write articles that inform, guide, educate, and raise awareness of risk and health crises as well as how to prevent them.


Diana Medina, Communications Manager for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), talked about the different types and levels of risk when living in urban areas. For example, there are in big cities often forgotten and/or ignored problems such as HIV/AIDS, chronic diseases, endemic dengue, poverty, etc. And what to say about the consequences of violence and the impacts of climate change.

Ms. Medina strongly believes in the significance of communicating messages about prevention and resilience. These messages will empower communities to be better prepared and to react before, during and after a disaster has occurred.

“The right messages can save lives, resources and means of lives. An effective channel to send them is through the radio because it reaches the most disadvantaged populations and allows a good rate of social participation”, she said.


The plenary session on the second day of the workshop discussed media pluralism, independence and quality coverage.

The importance of the topic and the workshop was highlighted by the presence of the moderator, Mr. Frank La Rue, Deputy General Director of Communication and Information of UNESCO.


Mr. La Rue emphasized that professional journalists must accomplish the purpose of informing people through articles that do not break the dignity of the victims or are unnecessarily gloomy.

“A misreported epidemic can make it worse”, he said. “Journalists must investigate different sources of information in order to accurately inform people about a disaster or an epidemic. They must avoid stigmatizing people or communities and they must clarify rumors or myths about the topic they are going to write about”.

“The professional practice of their journalistic job is the best contribution they can offer during a crisis”, he added.

The outcome, ideas and conclusions resulting from this intensive two-day workshop will be taken into account by UNESCO allowing them to better address its future efforts in empowering journalists, press officers, and communities at large in the production of preventative messages as well as through providing accurate information during emergency situations and outbreaks.

Article by Lucy Calderón

Lucy Calderón Pineda is a Guatemalan science journalist who obtained her bachelor’s degree in Science Communication at the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala. From June 2011 through June 2015 she was a member of the Executive Board of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ). Visit Lucy’s website:

Panama, July 16, 2016