Prioritizing science reporting for a healthy continent

When I applied for a week-long training on infectious diseases last September, I did not know what awaited me in Nairobi.

They say, curiosity killed the cat, and I could have been that cat as I read on MESHA’s website, a call for non-science African journalists to apply for this course and I duly did so.

As it turned out, the training was organized by the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) in collaboration with the Kenyan-based Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) with support from Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). It brought together 20 reporters drawn from Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi, Senegal/Liberia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya.

The fact that upon arrival at Nairobi’s Kenyatta International Airport on Sunday morning around 1:30 am Kenyan time, a taxi was at hand to take me to our hotel impressed me. Prior to traveling, the communication about the meeting kept trickling in, something that made me develop expectations that were indeed fulfilled.

For 5-days, I experienced one of the most intensive and enriching capacity building workshops ever. During the week, we went through presentations by experienced health experts and award-winning science journalists across a diverse range of issues around infectious diseases and health science reporting.

Issues at hand were very basic but crucial. They included the difference between communicable and infectious diseases; the difference between epidemics and pandemics; how infectious diseases could be transmitted, prevented and be cured, and basic vaccine information and immune system function. Worth mentioning here was the need for journalists to take caution in covering disease outbreaks as journalists are not exempted from being infected.

Other sessions included what constitutes science reporting and how science reporters can interpret scientific jargon to policymakers and the general public; what constitutes good and bad sources of news; dealing with rumors and misconceptions as well as a session on techniques for pitching science stories.

The advice from South African health science journalist Adele Baleta, our lead trainer and her co-trainer, Kenyan radio journalist Ann Mikia to the trainers was to be cautious in dealing with sources as some might look to be good sources (some research publications to be specific) when they are in fact bad sources.

In between presentations, what excited me most was the bringing in of infectious diseases survivors who shared their testimonies with the trainers. It is through testimonies that I came to know about extra pulmonary tuberculosis (TB), a kind of TB that is deadly but not commonly talked about. Their testimonies were very touching considering the route some have taken after surviving the diseases which is building awareness to their communities. That reminded me of one of my tasks as a journalist – to inform since information is crucial to prevention of diseases.

After the week-long training, I am now convinced that science reporting is crucial to development. As the saying goes that a healthy nation is a wealthy nation as journalists, it is our duty to contribute to a healthy nation by interpreting complex scientific jargon to simpler, understandable language for the consumption of both policymakers and the general public. Not only that but also by advocating for increased health funding as well as ensuring transparency and accountability in health budgets.

Listening to presentations from experts as well as award-winning science journalists have made me realize that I can contribute positively to the healthy well-being of my nation, Malawi, and Africa as a whole. Since I became a journalist, I have been covering all beats. While I cannot change this overnight, focusing on science reporting is now my priority.

Prior to the training I was asked to send my expectations and to be honest almost all of them were more than met by the all-inclusive training workshop. I came to Nairobi as a non-science journalist but by the end of the 5-day training I left Nairobi with one ambition to join those that have excelled in science reporting the likes of Aghan Daniel, Adele Baleta, Judie Kaberia and Lillian Odera.

This training has surely touched me.


Article by Kelvin Tembo, a participant to the workshop from Malawi
November 2016