Training Journalists to Use Health Data
What do you get when you bring 10 of Africa’s most dynamic health reporters together for three days? In addition to an incredible variety of experiences, areas of expertise, and a long list of award-winning stories, we also found consensus that Africa’s journalists need tools to help them use health data accurately and engagingly in their reporting.
MEASURE DHS (Demographic and Health Surveys), in collaboration with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) hosted a training-of-trainers in July in Entebbe, Uganda, to start developing a set of tools that African journalists can use to train others to use DHS data in reporting. This set of tools, and the possibility for future training, will be disseminated in collaboration with the newly founded African Health Journalists Association.
We have all seen bad reporting: verbatim use of a boring press release, inaccurate use of data, misinterpretation of survey findings, or the simple lack of quality data to support a story. The skills needed to use Demographic and Health Survey data well are extensive: basic math and statistical skills, knowledge of demographic and health terminology, and the ability to read and interpret complex tables. And that’s just the beginning. Once a journalist understands the data, how do they turn it into a compelling story with a human face? How do they explain to their readers why these results matter? How do they influence decisionmakers to take action to improve the health of their community?
Add to this long list the sensitivity of HIV prevalence data. As MEASURE DHS continues to include HIV testing in many surveys, accurate and thoughtful coverage of these results is essential. Unfortunately many journalists do not understand the concepts of survey error, confidence intervals, and significance or meaningfulness of trends. How do you explain to a journalist in East Africa that while the survey results look like a decrease in HIV prevalence, due to sample error, our survey does not in fact detect a change in HIV prevalence in the population? How do you teach someone who does not have a degree in health that an increase in HIV prevalence could be a good thing if it’s due to an increase in HIV-positive people living longer on anti-retroviral treatment?
The phenomenal journalists working with me in Entebbe understood and embraced these challenges. We have made plans to finalize a collection of practical tools that they can then use to train journalists in their countries through additional training sessions, university courses, and one-on-one mentoring. Tools range from the simple “Crossword Puzzle of DHS Terminology” to practical, hands-on math lessons on means, medians, percentages, and rates. And then we take it to the next level, with exercises to guide journalists through the large DHS report as they search for story ideas, provide tips on how to find the human face behind the numbers, and sell these story ideas to editors.
These tools will be distributed by the end of 2012, and plans for formal trainings are already underway in Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Nigeria.
Many thanks to the journalists and trainers who spent three days in Entebbe, time away from their own newsrooms and other responsibilities, to learn about DHS data and to share their expertise.