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Despite Obstacles, Nigerian Health Journalists Are "Fearless," Says AAAS's Hirshon
From left: Panelists Andrew Holtz, Funke Treasure Durodola, Duncan Moore, Bob Hirshon, Akin Jimoh and Soni Irabor.
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[Photograph © and courtesy of Ayodele Durodola]
Nigerian health journalists contend with taboo topics, equipment shortages, "brown envelopes" of bribe money and roads so treacherous it can be difficult to travel across town to attend a career-building workshop. Despite these obstacles, journalists in this West African country are among the most "feisty and brave" Bob Hirshon has ever seen. "They seem fearless here," he said admiringly.
Hirshon, senior project director in AAAS's Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs and host of the award-winning radio program Science Update, had a chance to meet with the reporters and listen firsthand to their concerns as a featured speaker at health reporting workshops held in Lagos and Abuja, Nigeria. Sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and Ruyi Communications, a public relations firm, the seminars on 26-28 November and 3-5 December 2007 attracted nearly 200 journalists from around the country.
The journalists share some challenges with their American colleagues: keeping up with the scientific literature, covering multiple beats, and convincing their editors to save space for health and science stories. But in many cases, these familiar problems have a uniquely Nigerian twist, Hirshon found.
For instance, the workshops included a session on how to read a scientific journal article, since most of the Nigerian reporters "have had very little exposure to science even in school," Hirshon explained. "As one of our Nigerian counterparts said, we showed them how to find the soft underbelly of a science paper, without the prickly jargon that might put them off."
After the journalists told the panelists they were "overcovering" the topic of HIV/AIDS, the panelists gave more attention to other topics such as avian flu and antibiotic resistance, and encouraged the journalists to find health stories in unexpected places.
"One of the most important things I learnt from Bob and his colleagues are that health stories are everywhere, in business, sports, politics and the military," said radio journalist Nonye Aghaji of Vision FM, 92.1 in Abuja, who came to journalism with a degree in microbiology.
Some health topics, particularly birth control and women's health, are seldom written about because they touch on cultural and religious sensitivities prevalent in some parts of the country, the journalists said. The topic of vaginal fistulas, common among child brides who give birth before they are 15 years old, "was the thing that drew the most arguments and heated discussions," Hirshon recalled. Women suffering from the condition are often ostracized and abandoned by both their husbands and their families.
But some of the health journalists argued that the topic was none of their business and that it was "a religious and cultural thing," he added.
Hirshon and the other panelists congratulate graduates of the Lagos workshop.
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[Photograph © and courtesy of Ayodele Durodol]
Hirshon was at the helm of AAAS's fellowship program for South African radio science journalists that began in 2001, where he remembers some of the same culture-versus-science clashes. Unlike Nigeria, South Africa has a well-established journalism infrastructure and "a respected class of journalists, but there were still messages in science and medicine that people there didn't want to hear in certain quarters," he said.
State controls also filter the topics available to Nigerian reporters, despite a provision in the country's constitution which guarantees freedom of expression to journalists, according to the nonprofit organization Freedom House. The organization listed Nigeria as "partly free" in its 2006 assessment of global media freedom.
"In practice, there are powerful interests both in business and government, and lots of rewards for toeing the line. There's a 'brown envelope,' a little money, if you come and cover their press conference," Hirshon said. "For people who get paid little or nothing for their work, it's a hard thing to resist."
"They [the panelists] advised us that our focus should be to become the best in the industry, that we should not allow poor remuneration to distract us," Aghaji said.
Aghaji doesn't need any more distractions. She and her colleagues are often forced to share laptops and sound editing systems, and money is always a concern. "It takes only people who have a real passion for journalism to invest in evidence-based, current and up-to-date reporting. Personally, I would have done so many of the stories we looked at during the workshop if not for money," she said.
Hirshon was joined at the workshops by Duncan Moore, president of the Association of Healthcare Journalists, and Andrew Holtz, editor of the online HoltzReport and former medical correspondent for CNN. Their Nigerian counterparts included Moji Makanjuola, head of the health desk at the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA); Akin Jimoh, program director for Nigeria's Development Communications Network and a former health editor for The Guardian, and Funke Treasure Durodola, finalist in the Henry J. Kaiser HIV Journalism Category at the 2007 CNN/Multichoice African Journalist of the Year Awards.
Ruyi Communications head Soni Irabor, a TV talk-show host and network executive who Hirshon described as the "Larry King of Nigeria," organized a seminar for journalists covering the country's national elections in April 2007. Pleased by the effect on coverage, Irabor wanted to repeat the experience for health journalists, Hirshon said.
As part of the seminar, Hirshon and the other panelists visited the Nigerian Institute of Journalism in Lagos. "Their library had a lot of bare shelves and needed almost everything. So when I got back, I put together a collection of books from AAAS—several offices donated materials," he said.
And in January, he received a letter of thanks from the Institute's provost, Dr. Elizabeth E. Ikem: "To us, this act speaks volumes of your interest in the development of the profession and training of journalists."
11 March 2008