UNESCO supports capacity building of African journalists in fact checking and communicating health science stories on COVID-19 Pandemic

“This pandemic has made it obvious that whether it is researchers, common citizens, vaccine manufacturer or policy makers, scientific knowledge needs to be communicated in a simple, accurate, captivating and understandable way to its end users and beneficiaries”. Prof. Hubert Gijzen, Director, UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter, The African Editors Forum and AfricaCheck have continued to join efforts with UNESCO in enhancing Media Information Literacy as a crucial intervention addressing the COVID-19 Pandemic, with a series of training on “Strengthening Journalists’ Capacity to Fact-check and Communicating Health Sciences in Africa”.

This Third Training Session focused on “Using captivating visuals/infographics to communicate complex science stories” and was held on 28 July 2021. It built on the first and second sessions which enhanced the skills of journalists on how to translate health science into simple language in the case of COVID-19 and the importance of going beyond the traditional tenets of balanced reporting to a more interpretive and investigative approach. This is necessary when covering complex and contentious issues around COVID-19 and Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs), as a key in countering mis/disinformation through using credible scientific evidence, for accurate reporting.

Over 300 science journalists in Africa in need of more capacity building to enhance their skills in use of visuals and infographics were in attendance for this Third Session.

“In order to improve COVID-19 and NCDs information visuals, there is need to target and visualize the public that is most affected by use of motion pictures to illustrate the situation on the ground and the solutions needed in a simple yet clear way” decried Mr. Ibrahim Usman, a Ghanaian Journalist.

In welcoming the participants, Dr Margaret Karembu, Director ISAAA AfriCenter stressed the consequences of the visuals used in communicating about the relationship between COVID-19 and Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and possible misinterpretations, when put out of context.

“It is easier to send a visual than it is to send a written word, it is even more attractive to the readers, however, some of this visual information contain content that put the facts out of context”. emphasized Dr. Karembu. 

While delivering opening remarks on this occasion, Prof. Hubert Gijzen informed the audience that UNESCO, in cooperation with the European Commission, Twitter and the World Jewish Congress, has produced very many visuals, graphic and social media messages, to counter disinformation and COVID-19 conspiracy theories, and all available to support open science communication and data journalism.

“Experience of uncertainty and fear makes people hold onto information that is false yet simplified. However, we can meet people where they are by opening room for discussion with the public and journalists’ themselves, in a collaborative and clear way” stressed Juliane Hoss, Managing Director of Tri-Facts at AfricaCheck. She further challenged participants to distinguish themselves from ordinary social media users, arguing that information from the journalists should be verified, attributed and should consult various sources. She insisted that this is what brings the balance and sets apart science journalists from other social media journalists, particularly in an era of information overload and with increased infodemic.

Dr Tessa Marcus, Emeritus Professor at the Department of Family Medicine at University of Pretoria, also echoed this view in her keynote presentation. She articulated on the need to visualize science in order to empower people. “Healthcare communication and audio visuals need to talk to the psychological wellbeing of a person in order for them to act and make a decision”, she argued.

The objective of this course to enhance journalists’ capacity to improve visuals in science stories were fully met, confirming the relevance of this regional activity that falls within the framework of the EU-funded project  #CoronavirusFacts, Addressing the ‘Disinfodemic on COVID-19 and  UNESCO Multi-donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists. It reaffirms the need for strengthening joint efforts between UNESCO, science, fact-checkers and media partners in Africa, to enhance capacities of media professionals to report on COVID-19. The training also aims at improving their access to verified information on COVID-19 as well as empowering African citizens to debunk misinformation, stop being agents of the spreading of rumors on the epidemic and to counter discrimination and hate speech against those affected by COVID-19.