By Esther Nakkazi
The Uganda media could be saturated with heath system issues but their content minimally refers to research, keeping researchers’ findings on the shelves.
A study titled; ‘From Paper to Mike: An analysis of Health Systems Reporting In Uganda’s Print and Radio Media’, revealed that health systems researchers’ voices and their findings were missing in the articles.
“There seems to be limited interaction between researchers and the media. I am aware that so much research is done but very little is reported in the media and this suggests for a closer working relationship between the media and heath researchers,” said Dr. Anne Katahoire, the principal investigator of the research study.
“Researchers do not trust many journalists for fear that they (journalists) will misrepresent the research findings. That this is partly because journalists do not take adequate time to study and understand carefully the messages being conveyed by the study findings. Also sometimes journalist just wish to sensationalize the findings,” said Nelson Sewankambo the Principal, Makerere University College of Health Sciences.
The study was conducted in the months of March-June 2010 by a multidisciplinary team, from the media and academia led by Makerere University and funded by Research Matters, a collaboration between the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
Nasreen Jessani, IDRC’s Health Program Officer for East and Southern Africa highlighted that “With increasing attention being paid to evidence informed decision-making, it is critical to recognize the role of the media as a ‘broker’ between researchers and decision-makers as well as between researchers and the general public.”
“In Uganda, we need to better understand the context within which researchers, decision-makers and media are interacting so as to better plan for enhanced use of new knowledge in policy and practice.”
The team analyzed over 100 newspaper articles from four local newspapers and 72 radio programmes covering the four regions of Uganda. In-depth interviews with health researchers, reporters, editors, and radio health program presenters and producers were also done.
Through these they explored the coverage of health issues in the media paying attention to the extent to which, journalists used research based evidence and the processes through which research gets or does not get into published articles in the newspapers and health programmes on radio.
The study, like no other done in this area, paid particular attention to the reporters behind the stories in terms of their background training and orientation.
All the newspapers reviewed had health magazines pull outs and the radio stations aired health related programs at least 2-3 times a week, a fact that showed a healthy coverage of health.
The researchers adopted the WHO health systems definition, as “consisting of all the people and actions whose primary purpose is to promote, restore or maintain health”.
This included formal health services including the professional delivery of personal medical attention, actions by traditional healers, all use of medication- prescribed by a provider or not.
It also had home care of the sick; traditional public health activities like health promotion and disease prevention, and other health enhancing interventions like road and environmental safety improvement. The articles identified in each of the newspapers were classified under these categories.
The study found that the majority of health system articles were on disease prevention and health promotion while the articles on the formal health services were more of critics of what was happening in the formal health services in the country but the majority was not informed by health systems research
Of all the published articles reviewed, almost none were based on health systems research in Uganda, for those that referred to some research reports; the research was most likely not conducted in Uganda.
In broadcasting media, it was found that radio programs on health were largely driven and sustained by sponsors (commercial or institutional) who determined the topics, the program running flow and were largely skewed toward disease prevention of the well funded diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria.
Ideally, health programs on radio would be driven by communities’ health needs or the professional choices of the producers or presenters. But most of the program presenters were also not trained, noted the study.
Newspaper articles were however, largely driven by community questions and were reporters and editors featured a particular health topic, they were driven by what they had either experienced in their own interaction with health system or that of someone they knew.
Indeed, the newspaper articles covered a larger spectrum of health issues relative to radio.
The study was premised on the assumption that the media, an important stakeholder in health systems research could potentially influence policy and public attitudes through its role of sensitization and publicity.
“Reporting should stimulate interest among the readers and debate on important findings that may affect policy development, change in health practices and the behavior of people that impacts on their health,” commented Prof Sewankambo.
“Both the media and the health researchers need to work on their attitudes towards each other. The media portrays researchers as exploitative and as using people as guinea pigs while health researchers have a dismissive attitude towards the media,” said the study.
“Our team found that there are different efforts towards this cause but more needs done. Researchers need to recognize that the media is an important stakeholder in research,” said Dr. Katahoire.
This entails a need for communication budgets in research, engagement of the media in the research process and more face-to-face interactions between the journalists and health researchers.
But also, health research funders need to devote funds for communicating the research findings to the public. If this were done it would improve the links between the media and researchers as well as media reporting of health research, according to the research team.
“This is a strategy that has been recognized and supported by many funders but requires buy-in and mutual trust from a number of players” asserted Ms. Jessani.
“In addition in requires a new cadre of professionals – one that straddles the worlds of research and the worlds of communication. Funding communication is necessary but not entirely sufficient. Adequate skills are required that allow for the distillation and repackaging of research results into different forms for different audiences.”
The research team included Dr. Anne. Ruhweza Katahoire the director, Child Health and Development Centre, School of Medicine College of Health Sciences, Makerere University; Doris Kwesiga a researcher with Makerere University; Esther Nakkazi a freelance science journalist; and Hannington Muyenje the outgoing Country Project Director, BBC world Service Trust in Uganda.