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Decoding Scientific Research to Support Public Health in Africa

Under the shade of a jambula tree in Kampala, Uganda, two dozen reporters and a researcher gathered in the spring of 2014 for the first-ever Media Science Café.

Nine years, hundreds of journalists, and thousands of media reports later, the Media Science Cafés debut in their sixth African country in June, potentially serving a combined population of some 230 million people with reports focused on the latest scholarship around infectious diseases, including those increasingly triggered by climate change.

This June, Tanzania joins Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi in a model that unites scientists, policymakers, working health journalists, and at least one member of the impacted public to add the weight of lived experience. Together, they hold two-hour conversations on health topics.

Underpinned by the conviction that a well-informed community is vital for effective public health measures, especially where hard choices are involved, the cafés were the brainchild of Ugandan journalist Esther Nakkazi.

They are supported by a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation to AVAC, a nonprofit founded in 1995 by HIV treatment activists. AIDS, which has had a devastating impact on Africa, was the first illness the cafés tackled.

  • Science reporting is hard. It’s not entertainment or sports. It’s not easy to get people to focus on it.
    Angelo Kaggwa-Katumba
    AVAC’s Senior Program Manager, Partnerships and Capacity Strengthening

Simplifying Science to Fight Disinformation

But the opportunity, he said, is that “people want to talk about the issues impacting them in real time. If my community is facing a drought, I want to understand why.”

“The role of health journalists, to translate complex science into the everyday lives of people, is hugely important,” Ruediger Krech, Director, Health Promotion, at the World Health Organization, said in an interview.

And the work has taken on even more urgency since the Covid-19 pandemic.

First Media Science Cafe in Uganda
Dr. Patrick Ndase (right) talks to Uganda journalists at the very first Media Science Cafe in Uganda. AVAC's Angelo Kaggwa-Katumba is on the left. (Photo courtesy of Esther Nakkazi)

“Precise and in-depth reporting can both inform people and build confidence in the work of public health officials. That is critical,” he said. “We have seen, very unfortunately, how fake information destroys people’s trust.”

  • Media Science Cafe in Uganda -- group of people around a table outdoors discussing female genital mutilation
    Health Journalists in Uganda in 2017 during a Cafe discussion on the practicer of female genital mutilation. (Photo Courtesy of Esther Nakkazi)

Casual Setting Builds Trust Between Researchers and Reporters

The open-air setting for that first café was intentional, aimed at fostering a casual and friendly atmosphere that remains the goal today. “We didn’t want slides,” recalled Nakkazi. “We wanted people sitting close together. We wanted informality.”

By removing the walls, literally and figuratively, “we’ve seen very tangible benefits,” Nakkazi said. “We are a continent faced with many diseases. Increasing public science literacy will help our communities and our governments.”

The café programs prepare journalists to report on clinical trial results while offering a chance to build relationships with researchers, policymakers, regulators, implementers, and civil society experts. The sessions often include representatives of marginalized communities who are most impacted by global health inequities.

“Infusing news reports with personal stories not only creates more compelling journalism, but more accurate, equitable representations of the people at the heart of global health issues,” said Estelle Willie, Director, Health Policy and Communications at The Rockefeller Foundation.

Although the café model keeps the sessions intentionally small so that journalists can go deep, some 150 reporters took part in cafés during the first quarter of 2023, with 39 percent having attended 15 cafés or more.

They’ve come a long way already, with more room to grow.

When that first media café was held, “there was only one researcher in Uganda willing to answer journalists’ questions,” said Kay Marshall, AVAC’s Senior Communication Advisor.

“Any article that appeared about scientific research was very brief, based on a press release and without much context.”

The researchers, for their part, also did not trust the journalists.

“A four-page press release filled with jargon is likely to leave you feeling misquoted because it’s too hard to follow,” Marshall said.

“The cafés have helped journalists and researchers build relationships, and have led to more accurate and detailed reports.”

They are currently being increasingly held outside of urban areas, and in local languages.

And when the group presented at the annual Africa Health Agenda International Conference in Kigali, Rwanda, in March, journalists from other countries raised their hands to ask about how to bring the program to their own countries and communities.

Man and Woman at a Media Science Cafe in Malawi
Kay Marshall (left) and Angelo Kaggwa-Katumba (right) at the opening media cafe in Malawi. (Photo Courtesy of AVAC)

Climate Reporting Will Benefit from Skills Honed in Media Science Cafes

Nakkazi’s mother was a nurse who was murdered when Nakkazi was 12 in an unsolved case. As a girl, her ambition was to become a doctor. But “my mother also encouraged me to read newspapers and follow the news,” she recalled. She ended up going in that direction and started her career at The EastAfrican, a weekly regional newspaper.

She began to focus on the health science beat after she got a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship to spend 2007-2008 at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also founded the Health Journalists Network in Uganda. “I think my mother would be proud,” she said.

The skills developed by journalists in Uganda and the other participating countries translate into new public health crises, as the Covid-19 pandemic proved.

Nakkazi recalled that before Covid-19 reached Uganda, the journalists held a café with Monica Musenero Masanza, a key advisor to Uganda’s president on epidemics, and she opened their eyes to what was coming. “She took us through everything. And when the president announced Covid-19 measures for Uganda, we had all the background information.”

With climate change, many officials predict a rise in infectious disease in Africa. WHO analysis noted that 56 percent of all public health crises on the continent between 2001 and 2021 were climate-related, and projected that figure would increase.

Nakkazi and other journalists feel the Media Science Cafés have helped put the right tools in their hands to meet this challenge. 

The cafés teach them “how to read scientific research papers and put the information into a broader context. There is a focus on data journalism,” Marshall noted. “And with climate change, the same principles are at play.”

“When we started, very few reporters were covering the health or science beats. Now, even as newsrooms trim down, our reporters remain because editors see their value,” said Kaggwa-Katumba.

“The focus on climate change reporting is going to reap the rewards of that. You have people already primed to report on science.”