Supporting Local Journalists in Africa During Infectious Disease Outbreaks

The Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak in Western Africa in 2014-2016 highlighted the importance of the media during public health emergencies. But the lack of tools, resources, know-how, and biased information all had a devastating impact on communications during the outbreak.

The World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) addressed some of these problems through capacity building of local journalists via science and health awareness training. The project’s overall goal was to provide Sub-Saharan African journalists with reliable and unbiased information on infectious diseases, including Ebola. The WFSJ also aimed to help build trust between journalists and health experts.

The project had three (3) components:

  1. Research
  2. Training
  3. Digital tools

Project results

Component #1 — Research

The research first set out to guide training strategies. It also explored barriers and success factors for journalists covering outbreak situations. A Concordia University (Montréal, Canada) and University Alassane Ouattara (Côte d’Ivoire) research team lead a data collection survey and analysis in French and English.

Component #2 — Training on Infectious Diseases for Sub-Saharan African Journalists

Face to face training helped build the capacity of local media to undertake high-quality health and science journalism. These trainings also supported on-the-ground health promotion action.

The six infectious diseases workshops were held in West and East Africa: Côte d’Ivoire (bilingual), Sierra Leone, Liberia and Kenya (in English), Guinea and Cameroun (in French).

Component #3 — The Health Toolbox, a free resource to create more impactful health stories.

Building on the training materials and feedback from journalists attending the workshops, the Health Toolbox will help increase accessibility and uptake of health knowledge, help monitor priority health issues, by creating links amongst members of the wider science-health journalism community through the Health Toolbox.

In its current version, the Health Toolbox is a free evidence-based online tool for Sub-Saharan African journalists to understand the science behind infectious diseases. It opens communication channels between African health experts and local journalists, helping to build trust and stronger relationships between them. The HealthToolbox also supports a move away from traditional practices and beliefs, to have a better science informed the general public.

The Health Toolbox has in its current version three (3) components:

  1. Connecting African journalists and health experts on infectious diseases through an interactive directory.
  2. The resource center includes outbreak files containing key information on infectious diseases, as well as a serious game to review basic science concepts when covering health outbreaks and a ‘How to’ on dealing with rumors.
  3. A blog where journalists and experts can discuss and asks questions.

The Health Toolbox was launched at the end of June 2017.

Project outcomes

Beyond the project’s immediate results, it also allowed for increased collaboration on several levels:

  • Increased coverage of health stories by training participants.
  • Increased use of reliable sources by journalists when covering EVD, infectious diseases, and vaccines.
  • Many news articles published on trainee experience, Facebook, blog posts, etc. Most of the participants have joined the WFSJ’s Facebook group and now exchange on a regular basis on stories they cover and challenges they face.
  • A WhatsApp and a Facebook training group were created to help participants keep in touch with each other and share new experiences and knowledge on training non-specialized journalists to cover public health emergencies.
  • Some participants were inspired to join existing science journalism associations or to create their own national science journalism association, to help promote best practices in science journalism in their countries.

Lessons learned and next steps

Based on the lessons learned, the project results and outcomes, the WFSJ has identified the following priorities:

  • Journalists and scientists need to collaborate more. To help build the trust between the research community and journalists, we have to make sure that journalists are in a position to properly access and assess scientific evidence and, when and where necessary, root-out skewed scientific research.
  • Journalists around the world operate in a time-constraint work environment. They need more support, such as real-time access to key health data and fact-checking tools.
  • Journalists need recurrent capacity building training programs to help them better anticipate public health emergencies and enhance the pertinence of the coverage in crisis environments.

To respond to these expressed and detected needs is to expand the current Health Toolbox by developing a collaborative space and a selection of online tools that will facilitate the rapid assessment of scientific information.