Health Journalism Fellows Make a Difference in African Health Coverage

Feb 62009

Barely nine months into the first year of the Knight Health Journalism Fellowships program, Chris Conte and Rachel Jones are leading projects that are increasing the quality and impact of health journalism in Sub-Saharan Africa. “The key to lasting change on the Continent lies in empowering the masses with vital information—about their leaders, their health and their environment,” Jones says.

The new Fellowships program, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, focuses on developing coverage that sets the stage for action on health policy. By focusing on government action to improve delivery of health care, media can play a critical role in helping millions threatened by killer diseases.

Jones, a veteran health reporter who recently worked in media development in Uganda, is hosted by the Nation Media Group, Kenya’s largest media organization. Jones believes journalists must find new ways to present health-related stories to “successfully compete with the conventional priorities, which are skewed towards stories about political wrangling.”

Under Jones’ guidance, a package of investigative stories on poor conditions and care in public hospitals was published in September in the Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading newspaper. As a result of the team effort that included reports from provincial areas, the Medical Services Ministry announced it will spend the equivalent of $7.5 million in the next year to upgrade hospitals around the country. Jones calls this a great example of creative reporting. “By focusing the reports on the experiences of real people, the package resonated with readers, and made politicians squirm,” she says.

In Uganda, Conte worked with editors at New Vision, that country’s largest and most-influential newspaper, to design and launch a new weekly eight-page section devoted exclusively to health issues. The publication of the new section doubled the newspaper’s heath coverage. “Besides needing more information about how to look after individual health, people here also need a better understanding of how health is a product not only of individual behavior and care, but also of social and political decision-making,” Conte says.

Conte also is leading an innovative initiative that puts doctors and reporters together to identify the real health problems in more-remote areas of the country – and try to find possible solutions. New Vision reporters and doctors in the northern city of Soroti are testing water to establish the root cause of an outbreak of Hepatitis E. The disease has claimed more than 100 lives this year in northern Uganda. Conte praises the journalists who have taken on these challenges: “It’s amazing what they can do when some of the barriers they face are removed.”

Another important achievement during Conte’s nearly eight months in Uganda: the revival of the Uganda Health Communication Alliance (UHCA), which now conducts workshops through a new collaboration with Makerere University. UHCA is producing a monthly newsletter, the Uganda Health Reporter Newsletter, which updates its 275 recipients on the latest health-related news and media-development opportunities. “In the months ahead, it hopes to start a public discussion about what would encourage journalists to make reporting a long-term career,” Conte says. In September, the U.S. Embassy in Kampala announced it will provide financial support for the further development of UHCA’s work.