Use UHCA to learn - through experience

Mar 262009

Editors Note: Fellow Chris Conte work towards sustainable impact with UHCAIn late 2007, when I learned that I would be coming to Uganda to train and support health journalists here, I sought advice from Bobby Pestronk, the longest serving and one of the most highly respected local public health officials in the U.S. “The first thing you need to realize,” he told me, “is that nothing you do is going to make a difference.”

He was talking mainly about health, where lasting improvements only come with time. But his bleak comment applies to journalism too. An old-time journalist may teach younger people a few tricks of the trade or introduce them to some new ideas, but as soon as the last PowerPoint slide is shown, working journalists go back to doing business as usual. They go back to their newsrooms, where new ideas are overcome by pressing deadlines, demanding editors, profit-minded owners, uncooperative newsmakers, and powerful institutions that can bring all kinds of pressure to get the coverage they want. Besides, within a few years many of those who receive the training will move on anyway.

Pestronk urged me to help establish an institution that can support good health reporting over the long term. Shortly after I came to Uganda, I learned about UHCA, and quickly realized that it offered an answer to Pestronk’s challenge. As an organization established and run by Ugandans, it can go on providing training long after I’m gone.

What’s more, UHCA provides a particularly effective kind of training: learning through experience. By participating in its organizational activities, members not only better their journalism, they also acquire other organizational skills. Planning a good workshop, for instance, is no different from producing a good news story. Like a news story, a workshop has to be relevant and responsive to the needs of the audience. It has to have news in it. It has to use the best “sources.” It has to fit the information into a defined “space” (in this case, a defined period of time). And it has to present information in a way that is both balanced and provocative.

Writing for UHCA’s newsletter also is all about learning on the job. It starts, as any journalism does, with knowing the audience and its needs. In seeking resources to help meet those needs, UHCA’s participants must sift through mountains of information, determine what is reliable and convey it in a form that is most useful.

Whether they are planning workshops, writing the newsletter or developing a Web site, UHCA members are honing the most important journalism skill of all: they are learning how to learn – and how to go on learning continuously. And in the process, they are helping their colleagues and their community.

UHCA’s members also are learning a lot about how to govern themselves. How do disparate committee members work as teams? What is the role of chairperson? What, indeed, is leadership, and what is good “follower-ship”? And how can UHCA sustain itself over the long run? I myself don’t know the answers, but I am starting to learn some answers with UHCA.

I believe UHCA is a great school of journalism. Of course, it gives no certificates or diplomas. But in the end, we are judged not by what credentials we hold but by what we accomplish. Consider Bobby Pestronk. One of the successful local health officials in America, he went on to become the head of a national association for state and local health officials. Yet he doesn’t even have a degree in public health. His ability to learn on the job, not his experience in school, propelled him to the top.

Christopher Conte is a Knight International Health Journalism Fellow who works with UHCA and health journalists. He is based at The New Vision. To learn more about Bobby Pestronk, you can read an article Conte wrote about him several years ago for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: