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VOA launches journalist training program on health and environmental reporting

New CD-ROM, available in both English and Spanish, provides tools intended to improve media coverage

Posted: March 9, 2005

Washington – 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, said Velilla.

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 issues.

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 stories.

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.

 

Daniel Cain
Washington File Staff Writer
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

 

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