Journalists based in Africa suffered from a lack of credible information during the West African Ebola viral epidemic in 2014, states a report published by the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) in partnership with the Department of Journalism at Concordia University. “The report concludes that if better communication and access to credible information were in place, many deaths may have been avoided,” says Damien Chalaud, Executive Director of the WFSJ.
The research set out to better understand the barriers and success factors experienced by journalists covering disease outbreak situations. It was conducted from late 2015 to early 2017 in several Ebola crisis affected African countries and included a qualitative survey (57 participants), qualitative interviews (33 participants) and an online survey (133 participants).
The online survey results showed that 93% of journalists surveyed agreed that a credible use of information during an outbreak such as Ebola needs to be improved.
“The main challenge journalists faced during this outbreak were lack of collaboration from government, difficulty accessing health experts, and finding timely, accurate and centralized information,” says David Secko, head of research and Chair of the Department of Journalism at Concordia University.
In response to these challenges, the WFSJ organized six (6) infectious disease training workshops in sub-Saharan countries in 2015 and 2016. Over 600 applications were received, and more than 100 health journalists participated coming from 21 countries. The training covered the science related to infectious disease outbreaks, such as differentiating a good information source from a bad source, a vaccine from a drug, etc. During the training, journalists repeatedly mentioned the need to connect with independent, local health experts to validate facts behind disease outbreaks.
The Health Toolbox
Because building trust between journalists and experts increases successful collaboration, the WFSJ built the Health Toolbox, an interactive platform on infectious diseases, allowing journalists and local experts to connect easily. “After login, journalists search the directory and email experts directly through the platform. It’s safe, quick and easy,” says Damien Chalaud.
The Health Toolbox has other important features such as a Resource Center containing key information on infectious diseases such as Ebola, yellow fever, malaria, dengue, measles, ZIKA, HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis, MERS, avian influenza, influenza pandemics, and Hepatitis B and C.
SciJo is an interactive online game allowing players to test their health journalism skills and review basic knowledge of concepts related to disease outbreaks.
Although important lessons are learned, still more work needs to be done. “More capacity building is needed to improve disease epidemic reporting, as well as real-time collaboration between journalists and experts for facts validation,” says Chalaud, “but we’re on it”.
Infographic with report highlights
This project was funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Ottawa, Canada.