In recent years, the world has experienced major pandemics and epidemics that have threatened health security and challenged health systems to effectively communicate health concerns to the public. Health journalism plays an essential role in communicating health information to allow the public to make informed decisions about their health. Despite health journalism’s importance, health journalists face considerable challenges with reporting on vital healthcare information and the impact of diseases and viruses on communities.

Michael Gwarisa, editor-in-chief for HealthTimes News, an online health news publication in Zimbabwe, who was previously a business journalist, chose to venture into health journalism as he saw a gap in health reporting and that the only time news organisations prioritised health issues was when there was an outbreak or health crisis.

“I wanted to bridge the gap and to ensure that health is prioritised and given the attention it needs,” says Gwarisa.

“All newsrooms should be reporting on health and every newsroom should have a health desk comprising of journalists who specialise in reporting health. The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the gap in health reporting. Due to a shortage of health journalists, journalists from other beats were reassigned to the health beat, resulting in misrepresentation, misinformation, and failure by journalists to critically articulate issues. Unlike other beats, health is a science and relies heavily on facts rather than assumptions. Additionally, universities in Zimbabwe should prioritise health journalism, and students should be trained by qualified public health experts,” he says.

Rebecca Ejifoma, Nigerian health journalist for This Day said that due to a lack of training, students and interns tend to choose other journalism beats such as tech, oil and gas, finance and real estate as opposed to health journalism. “The benefits of health journalism cannot be overemphasised. Firstly, it keeps the public abreast of the latest trends and developments in the health space. Secondly, it enlightens readers about healthy practices and solutions,” says Ejifoma.

Health journalism requires journalists to break down complex and scientific language that can be easily understandable to readers. But how have communities responded to health journalism? Ejifoma says, “Quite a few readers have faulted health journalism. For some, health journalism reports more on events than policies, investigations, and health challenges in rural communities”.

Wanjiru Thuku, host and producer of Wellness With Wanjiru for the Wanjiru Thuku Network, an online digital TV, says health journalism is a crucial component of every newsroom, and the media is the link that bridges all medical gaps between the patient, the doctor, and the policymakers. “People are hungry for health information. For governments, in both developed and developing countries, public health has become an area of concern over the years. If someone in Kenya for instance has fibroids and another in South Africa is diagnosed with the same, the treatment is often the same. As a health journalist, reporting on such a topic in Kenya can reach audiences far beyond its borders”. Thuku adds that “health journalism is a universal language. Illnesses like diabetes and cancer were viewed as diseases of affluence. Today, however, these are among the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in Africa, which is a third-world continent. Someone listening to me will want to understand why the prevalence and what can be done to combat them”.

At HealthNews Times, Gwarisa says that they have created several innovations to ensure that they reach out and accommodate various societal groups. “We have created WhatsApp groups where instead of sharing links, we share texts so that readers don’t need to open the link to access the stories. We have also introduced vernacular health reporting where we publish news in Shona, and we will soon include Ndebele. Additionally, we share news on our social media platforms. All these innovations have made us one of Zimbabwe’s leading and trusted health news sources”.

What are the challenges that journalists face?

The biggest challenge for health journalism in Zimbabwe is access to information which is centralised and controlled by the Ministry of Health says Gwarisa. Bureaucracy in the country prevents journalists from accessing critical health information timeously.

“This can either be at the government level or organisations offering health services. The lack of health and science reporting training is also a big issue in Zimbabwe and impacts the quality of reporting on health issues. Compared to other countries, where health journalists are trained in science and health reporting, in Zimbabwe and the majority of Africa, we learn on the job. In universities, the health journalism module is taught by non-health or medical people who lack knowledge on medicine and science, which impacts the quality of health reporting”. Gwarisa adds that the media in Zimbabwe is highly polarised along political lines, however, this has given health journalists an edge as they specifically report on health news without any political inclination. “This has allowed me as a health journalist to access information and opportunities to document issues in communities where some politically biased press cannot get into,” he says.

Ejifoma says one of the challenges in the health sector is getting a comment or response from relevant authorities and the frustrating protocols to go through before getting a response or an interview. Another challenge is the lack of in-depth knowledge of relevant health topics for adequate reporting on various platforms. She agrees that adequate training will help journalists better navigate health journalism.

“Misinformation is one of the drivers of distrust in the media. Most of the time, when journalists cannot get confirmation from some authorities, they publish their reports to meet deadlines. One thing I always do with unverified and unconfirmed reports from sources is to hold on to the story to avoid misinformation or being slammed with a lawsuit,” says Ejifoma.

For Gwarisa, “Misinformation is one of the leading impediments to health journalism as at times it is peddled by reliable and trusted medical and public health personnel, government, leading religious and traditional figures, and at times politicians. In 2022, the government denied that there was a measles outbreak and people died. They only accepted when our publication broke the story of eight children who had died in Makoni district over a short space of time”.

“During Covid-19, pharmacists and some doctors published a joint statement affirming that Ivermectin was working miracles in Covid-19. There were also reports of Africans being immune to Covid-19 due to the sunny and warm environment. This gave people some false sense of immunity and exposed them to risk as they let their guard down. It was difficult to believe fact-checked articles on Covid because of misinformation.”

Despite health journalists’ challenges, according to Gwarisa, “there is quite a sizable number of journalists reporting on health issues in Zimbabwe. We have formed the Health Communicators Forum in Zimbabwe where we have brought health journalists under one roof to coordinate and promote the reporting of health issues in the country. Members are from the country’s ten provinces and the Forum is chaired by veteran broadcaster Anna Miti and I serve as the secretary general”.

Ejifoma also noted that there are many journalists reporting health in Nigeria. “… from mainstream to new media, I know a handful of male and female journalists who have been covering the health beat for decades now.”

However, in Kenya, Thuku says not many journalists specialise in health journalism. One of the reasons is a lack of specialised training, which then results in limited knowledge. As a result, it is not easy to give credible information to readers and viewers. The other reason is scientific terminologies. For some journalists, it can be challenging to identify medical experts who can help in the interpretation and understanding of health topics. For some, the research is considered a waste of time and resources.”

Gwarisa concludes that an ordinary person should be able to read and understand complex health issues and this can only be done through simplifying certain complex health terms and procedures.

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