– Natural disasters and public health crises often
create a tsunami of reporting by journalists who have little
background in science or medical fields. The result can
be overblown and unsubstantiated reports that panic rather
than educate the public.
A new, free multimedia CD-ROM developed
by the Voice of America (VOA) is aimed at correcting this
problem by training reporters to respond to such events
more responsibly and accurately, said U.S. officials and
international health activists at a press conference March
7. The event, held at VOA offices in Washington, launched
a new training program for journalists.
The International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB)
training program, available in both English and Spanish,
is designed to improve journalism training in Latin America
and the Caribbean. It provides step-by-step instructions
for crafting health-related reporting and generating story
ideas as well as background resources, videos and links
to Web sites on public health.
The program "has the potential to change
the [way] journalism is taught and the means by which journalists
… can inform the public on health issues," said
Loida Velilla, the project manager in IBB, VOA’s parent
agency. She also said that improved training in health journalism
could help media outlets "influence [people worldwide]
to adopt healthier lifestyles."
The CD-ROM will be distributed to journalists
by VOA, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID),
international health organizations, regional journalism
organizations and private health care corporations such
as Merck & Co. Inc. There have already been more than
2,000 requests for copies of the CD from more than 50 countries,
Because of the great need for better health
reporting and the enthusiastic response to this program,
Velilla said she hoped that new versions of this training
CD could be created to address a variety of other health
An African version of the CD is scheduled
to come out in 2006, she explained, with a focus on the
key health issues that affect that continent, such as malaria,
HIV/AIDS and polio.
Representatives from other agencies stressed
the important relationship between timely and accurate media
coverage of health issues and the ability of governments
and international health organizations to provide assistance
during times of crisis.
"One of our main partners in public
health … worldwide has been the media," said
Dr. Joxel Garcia of the Pan American Health Organization
(PAHO). Because of the media, he said, public health issues
such as severe advanced respiratory syndrome (SARS), the
Asian bird flu and natural disasters have become front-page
Garcia stressed that accurate news coverage
during a large natural disaster, such as the recent tsunami
in December 2004, is especially important. He lamented the
news reports that surfaced soon after the disaster's magnitude
became known, many of which falsely warned of immediate
health risks posed by the large numbers of unburied bodies
were a "myth," he said.
Worse, he added, those stories proved counterproductive
to addressing more pressing health issues.
But this new training program, he continued,
"would help with the process of educating and training
… the media, because they are the people that will
be working hand in hand with [international aid groups]
to educate the people [about health issues]."
Garcia added that the media are not only
important for "inform[ing] the people we are seeking
to protect," but also serve as a valuable informal
source of information for relief organizations about conditions
on the ground during a crisis.
Copies of the Health Journalism CD-ROM can
be ordered at www.ibb.gov/healthCD.
Washington File Staff Writer
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International
Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: