This week, the Ebola rise in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continued to generate regional and international news headlines following a precautionary regulatory update by Rwanda, at the Goma border, 163kms North-West of the capital Kigali.
But the framing of the headlines and the tone of their accompanying stories helped shade light on possible capacity challenges among news reporters especially on context and narrative, in the wider realm of global health communication, as an emerging specialized beat of journalism.
I asked myself the question; if one was the assigning editor of a news outlet, which of their beat-journalists would they assign to cover the story?
Well, that would depend on the kind of story you expect from the journalist. That would lead us to the next question; what kind of story does Ebola present to the news media?
Is it a public health story? Is it a political/diplomacy story? Is it a business/trade story? Is it a tourism/travel story? Is it a general border security story?
One could say it is a pentahedron, if we are to borrow geometric language, since it possesses all of the above story angles. So then what?
The next consideration would be a question of resources. If you have reporters in all those news beats, deploy all of them on the story with each focusing on the angle of their news-beat.
But as you well know, media houses world over are struggling with resources, so a political or health news-beat reporter will be assigned to cover an Ebola story, and they’re expected to highlight all the other news angles that the story encumbers.
The rush this week, by regional and international outlets to run with the screaming headline reporting that Rwanda had allegedly closed its Goma border with DRC revealed how the political story angle dominated the public health angle of the story.
It took the quick intervention of Rwanda’s Minister for Health and State Minister for regional cooperation, to clarify that the news reports were inaccurate and a misrepresentation of the facts on ground.
Luckily, the hullabaloo that the alleged border closure created was quickly diffused in time to return the focus to the story angle that matters most in this case; the multilateral efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak in DRC while putting in place measures to restrict its spread.
Based on its previous outbreaks, Ebola is an emerging global public health hazard. It is a major threat to international travel and trade and how the media reports on its outbreaks around the world, could make or break global multilateral efforts to contain its spread.
Given the speed at which news moves these days, thanks to internet backed online outlets, careless reporting of disease outbreak around the world could crash stock markets, jeopardize global travel industry and shock tourism numbers.
While misreporting on disease outbreaks poses serious risks and challenges, it also avails an opportunity to invest in specialized training for Global Public Health Journalism, to improve the quality of reporting on delicate happenings such as Ebola.
The Rwanda based University of Global Health Equity (UGHE) is a top of mind champion in regards to building the next generation of global health professionals – doctors, nurses, researchers, public health and policy experts. I think Global Public Health journalists should be added to the list.
Considering that EAC economies are highly dependent on tourism revenues yet the region is also prone to public health hazards such as Ebola and Cholera outbreaks, communication becomes key.
It is therefore important to build a network of specialized public health reporters to reduce on the mediated risks resulting from how disease outbreak presented in the news.
Fortunately, UGHE already believes that ‘simply training more doctors and nurses isn’t enough’ in dealing with global health challenges.
The Institution asserts that, “the global health education system is failing to prepare students to solve our most pressing health challenges – from containing new diseases like Ebola and stemming the rapid rise of non-communicable diseases to designing and running health care systems.
“If we are going to solve these challenges, we must reimagine global health education. UGHE is doing just that,” excerpt from the University’s five-year strategy statement.
A BBC Policy briefing on the role of communication in global health published three years ago, also recognised the critical interplay between human health and communication. It however noted that, financing gaps stumble the efforts to walk the talk.
“When it comes to funding allocation and the ways in which health programmes are implemented on the ground, clear deficits can be seen; too often, health communication is poorly funded, under-utilized, badly planned and bolted on to programmes as an apparent afterthought.’
This needs to change if progress towards a healthier world is to be accelerated.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.