Health researchers and the media …… a time to stand close.


I want to return to the unfortunate reporting about bednets in the media .The story implied that treated bednets were not safe…


The initial title on the article ‘KEMRI finds use of treated mosquito nets unsafe’ has been replaced with ‘Researcher seek to replace harmful insecticide’.

As I mentioned in my article, despite the quick intervention by the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) to correct that mistake, doubts have been planted in people’s mind regarding one of the most effective preventative measure against malaria.

When a gaffe like this one happens –it destroys trust between the media and health researchers. However, I do believe that this is not the time for the world of health research to build walls and hide in fear of poor reporting.

In a time when the most powerful world leader openly expresses opinions that are totally at odds with the evidence – a president who believes fake news about basic things like vaccines – health researchers need to keep the media close. This incidence should not be used by KEMRI to shut off journalists but to rethink their approach to communications.

Compare how politicians and researchers interact with journalists…..

Politicians are always rushing about courting journalists all the time. Politicians will hand out their timetables to journalists and will be offended if there is no press when they talk. The same politicians complain about being misquoted. They are made fun off by the media but they never cease to chase them – any publicity is worse than none. Journalists get to know the men and women behind all the show and a relationship develops. A relationship where both parties seem constantly dissatisfied but can’t let go of the other. Unless there is a terror attack – the front page of every Kenyan paper will be a story about politicians.

Researchers would rather publish their findings in a respectable journal and get on with work than deal with the media. If it were not for the fact that funders now insist that researchers must engage with the public – they would not go near the media. Some may feel they are above talking to journalists – and that is not lost to reporters.

However, in the recent years, most research organizations have communications officers – making it easier for reporters to be matched to scientists. Many researchers are also making a point of learning how to simplify their work and many enjoy making their findings public. Many programs have been designed to help scientists engage more with the public in the last few years than ever before. Researchers are often driven by a need to make things better – so it is satisfying to them for the public to understand their work and adjust health practice for the better.

The media often does a good job when the researchers take the time to explain their work, but sometimes mistakes in reporting will be made – as happened recently. Researchers then retreat even further into their shell. Very few journalists in Kenya can claim to know many of the Kenyan researchers well at all. This does not build a relationship. It is extremely rare – if it has ever happened – for research findings by Kenyans to make the front page headline.

Politicians and researchers, are however extremes – I am not suggesting that scientists should prostitute themselves for headlines – unlike politicians who appear to make their living from just mouthing words than doing any actual work – researchers must get their hands dirty to make headway. So there is no way that researchers can behave with journalists as politicians do – but there must be some middle ground.

Science reporting can also not be subjected to the same rules as political reporting. Reporters can put their twist to what politicians say – health research cannot be reported this way. Journalists must ensure that they get a story right. Not getting the story right can have dire consequences – no journalists wants to be remembered for creating doubts about credible disease preventing measures.

It would benefit writing and trust if researchers were shown their quotes for an article before it is published. I think it is only fair that scientists feel they are quoted correctly. Allowing scientists to proof read their quotes for an article is not going against the ethics of good writing.

A researcher will understand that they will not be able to see the whole article – but they will be reassured that they are quoted right. The media must stop being so rigid about this. Most journalists are not scientists – and they may be treading in a completely new field. Research results are sometimes complex even for researchers not trained in the field – to get their heads round. There is no shame in saying ‘Let me make sure I get this right’.

Scientists want to be reassured that their work will be reported accurately – reporters want to know that nothing is being hidden from them. That they are getting the whole story.

When researchers and journalists work well together – it is of benefit to everyone. Having been a researcher at KEMRI for ten years – and publishing my own research findings – I totally understand that side of the world. Having been a freelance journalist for seven years and counting – I also understand what that world is like.

We are living in a time where it is absolutely essential that researchers speak to the media and develop a deep, respectful relationship. Health journalism is growing in importance – building strong bridges between these two worlds has never been more urgent.

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  • Cynthia, Betty and Noni – thanks for the comments. I hope that people don’t assume the pill is for popping ….just in case…..sort of thing. I hope it’s use is controlled until people have good knowledge of its use

    • Noni Mumba

      Great article about media and researchers. On the ‘pill’ issue (PrEP), the public is already a bit misled. The same NASCOP needs to roll out appropriate communication concerning this new drug. Good thing is the drug cannot be found in pharmacies (though will be a matter of time before someone begins to sell over the counter).

  • Yes- there needs to be more engagement with the public and I agree without that the drug should be restricted till people understand the value and downsides of it

  • We need the media to be trained and sensitized on health matters to avoid miscommunication. The government should also focus on educating the public before rolling out the pill

  • Tabs

    Public education before the roll out of programs is crucial and I agree with you on that Moses