Researchers, journalists, artists come together

Nov 212009

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — For three days this week, a group of artists, researchers, journalists and others ready to make a difference sat around the Olive Grove room at the Intercontinental Hotel and talked about what they had in common.

Not much, one would think, on the face of it. Researchers talked about protocols and policies, journalists about tight deadlines and bad headlines, and the artists -- singers, dramatists, visual artists -- they talked about the myriad ways to create messages concerning matters of life and death.

But in the end, representatives of seemingly disparate professions found enough in common that they decided that they would like to meet more often -- monthly -- and skip the hotel next time, in favor of going to each others' places.

This was the outcome of a three-day workshop this week on Maximising Health Research Communication in Zambia, a meeting of minds that broke the workshop mold in its long-term problem-solving approach. The workshop was sponsored by British nonprofit Wellcome Trust and pulled together by veteran journalist and consultant Oliver Kanene, with assistance from this Knight Health Journalism Fellowship, Panos Southern Africa, and the Microbicide Media and Communication Initiative, South Africa.

What everyone had in common, participants agreed, was a desire to tell the truth about health issues and outlooks in Zambia. That is a desire often frustrated by differing needs -- by journalists seeking relatable information on research that will affect their readers, by scientists who can't maintain integrity of studies if they release details while work is still underway, by artists who have been effective in spreading messages, but want to make sure their messages are correct.

Participants discussed these concerns and others in exchanges that were notably blame-free, and agreed they could all do better by sharing what they knew about their fields and what they could offer, rather than focusing on their differences. In the process journalists supplied definitions of "beat," and "Sub Desk," while researchers explained how data can be "statistically insignificant." Artists brought in their travelling exhibition on global warning, demonstrating how complicated concepts can be shown rather than told. To that end, the group agreed, field trips would be a great start -- to a newsroom, a research center, a clinic, a gallery -- with the first planned for January, location to be announced.