One of the first lessons I learnt as a young journalist is that readers place a premium on stories that have a direct impact on their lives. I believe health stories are at the top of the ladder in that regard.
Health determines the ability of individuals to enjoy life and realise their hopes as they contribute to society.
Given this reality and how heavily Kenyans rely on the media to help inform their decisions, including personal health care choices, health should be one of the most celebrated beats in journalism. But this is not the case, as I found out while training and mentoring a group of young print journalists on reporting on HIV.
“Is there any story left to be told about HIV? Why put so much effort in writing a health story when our editors believe news equals politics?” Journalists posed these two questions in a variety of ways throughout the week-long training at Internews.
You only need to watch prime time TV bulletins where stories about politics run back to back or read the newspaper headlines to see the point the journalists were making.
But having been involved in health journalism over the last nine years at different levels including as a writer, sub-editor, editor and now trainer, I believe the situation is not that dire. There has been tremendous improvement in health journalism across different media including radio, TV and print. In the three years I spent editing the health and science pages at The Standard, a national newspaper, I witnessed this gradual improvement in the quality of health stories but I was also frustrated by how little journalists interrogate and health analyse issues.
One thing that cannot be disputed is that the media have come a long way in terms of the space and time given to health news and features. Most national newspapers have sections dedicated to health and science news and TV and many of the FM and community radio stations have health segments.
Even then, health segments in our news should not be the measure of good health journalism. Speaking at a Coffee with the Editors forumat Internews, the former head of the BBC’s African News and Current Affairs department, Joseph Warungu, said labelling stories as health or development stories puts people off. “Every story is about life,” he said. The same view is shared by veteran health and science journalist Gatonye Gathura of The Standard and Citizen Editorial Director Faridah Karoney, who have said that health stories should compete for space at prime time alongside other stories. They say segments encourage complacency causing journalists to be more concerned about filling up space every week rather than producing quality stories.
My take on this is that segmentation is not necessarily terrible. Let health news compete for space in prime time, but just like other areas, such as business and politics, the media should provide segments where health issues are looked at in depth.
Beyond the segments, the numbers of health stories have increased. The standard of health journalism has also improved thanks to the work of several media capacity building and training organisations such as Internews in Kenya, which for the past nine years has been mentoring and training journalist in health journalism.
Yes, there is much good health journalism out there – but it can also be awful. Many health stories are verbatim reporting that do not hold those in positions of authority to account. Story telling in the media in general is weak and few journalists have the big picture in mind when doing stories. There is little attempt to interpret events and put them into context. For instance, every so often the media reports a new study revealing that diarrheal diseases are one of the biggest killers of children under age five or announce renewed efforts to control the disease that is increasing. But few journalists move to the next step to ask why a disease that can easily be managed through O.R.T.C. – or oral rehydration therapy corners, where children can receive quick and easy treatments that could save their lives is causing so much misery? Oral rehydration therapy is an inexpensive solution of salt, sugar and water. Is it because of poor leadership? Misplaced Government priorities and policies? Corruption? or lack of investment in primary healthcare?
Stories of this nature rarely appear in our media. That our journalists are not producing these types of stories comes off as lazy journalism.
An example of this breed of journalism is captured in the often told tale of men in Central Kenya who are unable to sire children because of abusing illicit brew, which has resulted in a stagnation of the area’s population. A quick look at the Kenya Demographic Health Survey and other government data will reveal that the region has a high uptake of family planning services and contraceptives and a better educated female population than the rest of the country, except for Nairobi. These combined with the high rural-urban migration, because of the areas closeness to Nairobi and other major towns, have an impact on population growth. Besides, the last census shows that it is not the region that had the lowest population increase. Apart from limitations among individual journalists, media managers have also failed to dedicate resources to health journalism. You will be hard-pressed to find a media house that has reporters and writers solely dedicated to health journalism. At some media houses, the health writer is the only person in the newsroom who understands health issues. These journalists need editors who are familiar enough with the subject to add value to their stories.
Because of glaring mistakes in the past, many researchers are wary of media misreporting and sensationalism. Due to this, they have chosen to shy away from the media.
Some of the researchers who are ready to share information with the media find their hands tied by agreements they have signed with foreign funders of their project. Usually most study findings and breakthroughs are announced in Western scientific journals. Since we live in a global village, health journalists should keep up with the journals.
But this should not intimidate health journalists for they must continuously work to cultivate their relationships with the research community. It is encouraging that data and information from health ministries and government organisations such as the National Aids and STI Control Programme (NASCOP) are now more accessible than a few years ago.
These positive developments in health journalism should encourage the media, and training and mentoring institutions to redouble their efforts.
Then maybe the next time health journalists will not ask whether health stories can make it to prominent pages even if they are not about epidemics and major scientific breakthroughs. And my trainees did find the answer to their question whether HIV stories can make it to the front page. One writer published an HIV story on page one of a national daily. Another had a story on page three of the main paper and two had cover stories in the inside sections. Others had page leaders in the early pages of their newspapers.
*This article was first published in The Media Observer, a publication of the Media Council