Once every month, health journalists in Uganda attend a Science Café. It is usually held on a Wednesday from 3-5 pm, a day and time largely selected by them.
The Health Journalists Network in Uganda (HEJNU), an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to increasing understanding of health care issues and improving health literacy among Africans organises the Science Cafés in partnership with AVAC, a global non-profit organisation that works to accelerate the ethical development and global delivery of HIV prevention options.
Generally, Science Cafés present a platform for unique public engagement on issues that may be rather isolated from the general public including journalists.
“This is a very impressive innovation and it is good to know that journalists are interested in what is going on in research,” said Francis Kiweewa, the head of research and scientific affairs, Makerere University Walter Reed Project (MUWRP).
Kiweewa was the scientist featured at the fifth Science Café that discussed HIV ‘Cure’ at the HEJNU home in Ntinda alongside journalist Hilary Bainemigisha, the editor at the leading daily newspaper ‘The New Vision’.
“The science cafe concept is spot on in the way it mobilises science writers, keeps us in touch with each other as we share updates for our improvement of skills in writing science,” said Bainemigisha.
We hold them in an informal setting and keep the numbers small ranging from 20 to 25 people, which allows for more in-depth interaction and absorption of the topics discussed, said freelance science journalist and the head of HEJNU, Esther Nakkazi.
“I was very free wearing sneakers. I liked the free environment, any body can shoot any question any time,” said Dr. Salim Wakabi a senior researcher at MUWRP who was featured at the fourth Science Café that discussed vaccines.
“Chances of impact are greater when people see their opinions and participation being valued during the sessions. We believe the speakers divulge more in-depth information and thorough explanations because of the small groups and in such a setting,” said Nakkazi.
On a typical day, at the monthly HEJNU Science Cafés, two young journalists employed at media houses elsewhere come over and clean the chairs, set up tents and make sure drinks and stationery are available. They are also responsible for mobilising the journalists.
That makes the Cafés extremely cheap since there is no money spent on the venue in a posh hotel or building. But that also means that the rain can stop a Café from happening but so far that has not happened, said Nakkazi.
Wilfred Ssenyange, working with the national broadcaster, Uganda Broadcasting Service (UBC) makes sure genuine journalists are invited and they have to confirm attendance with him.
He said he knows that the numbers have to be kept small and so warns them not to come along with friends who have not been invited, a practice that is so common among Ugandan journalists.
Jael Namiganda, a journalist with Metro FM, ensures that the journalists register and that they are comfortable. But also follows up on the stories produced.
She says its good training for her and hopes to become a prominent science journalist. The two only graduated in 2014 and they are referred as ‘HEJNU interns’ which they protest.
“To measure the impact, we provide a detailed report to our sponsors from the sessions,” said Evelyn Lirri, a journalist and the deputy at HEJNU who writes out the reports. These entail the discussions and the stories that are published out of the Science Cafés.
“We love that the journalists can write stories from the Science Café but we do emphasise that we are more interested in them learning. So actually, when you observe, most of them are listening to the speakers instead of the rush mood when they have to produce a story,” said Lirri.
At the Science Café there are usually two speakers either a researcher or scientist, and someone from civil society. Discussions are fluid and interactive through how the speaker engages with the audience in a casual manner.
Angelo Kaggwa-Katumba, a program manager at the AVAC office based in New York helps with choosing the topics and invitations for speakers.
“It has been excellent,” said Kenneth Mwehonge from HEPS Uganda, civil society organisation. “Sharing information on on-going biomedical HIV prevention research with journalists is integral in having a successful role out of new prevention technologies.”
Nakkazi explained that so far, the Science Cafés are only about HIV prevention but they will soon expand to other areas and cover a bigger geographical area beyond Kampala so that other journalists benefit.
She said these offer journalists an opportunity where many would never otherwise interact with some of the guest speakers on such an informal yet personal level as well as generate story ideas, critique work and engage in thought provoking debate.
“The informal setting of the Science Cafés works well because it reduces the distance between the speakers and the journalists. This particular setting makes it easier to freely ask questions and have a discussion,” said Rosanne Anholt a research intern at Athena Institute and HEJNU for a Masters in International Public Health, VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
When Dr. Barbara Marjorie Nanteza the National Safe Male Circumcision (SMC) Coordinator at the AIDS Control Program, Ministry of Health, Uganda was invited to speak to journalists at the 3rd Science Café on Safe Male Circumcision, she first expressed how she was not happy about the media reporting on the topic.
But after the Science Café and the media coverage that followed from it, she sent the HEJNU secretariat a message saying she had heard on radio what the journalists had aired and it was good.
“I would like to thank you for the chance you offered me to talk to the journalists about SMC programme in Uganda. I am really happy about the media awareness by the respective journalists…. and if they ever want to hear from me again, just let me know in advance, said Dr. Nanteza.
“Over time, the quality of questions at the Science Café, the sharing of story ideas, peer criticism and final output in the different media houses is improving,” Bainemigisha who edits the Saturday New Vision paper observed. “Writers now have easier access to sources they have met at cafes which eases work.”
Although it is a good innovation it still needs some improvement. For instance, Anholt thought that for two Science Cafés she attended (on male circumcision and HIV vaccine research), the way the topics were discussed remained very (bio) medical without adding a social aspect.
“By social aspects I mean, what are the social issues around male circumcision? Are there any cultural practices or beliefs that interfere with circumcision campaigns? Are there any misconceptions that need addressing?,” said Anholt.
She said that adding the political, economic and cultural context, which could be achieved by the same speaker or having an additional speaker would be valuable and add to journalists’ in-depth understanding of HIV.
Nakkazi said the Science Cafés are also meant to promote a culture of scientists sharing their findings outside of the scientific community in a relaxed setting and prepare the media for research studies results.
At one of the Cafés they have featured Dr. Clemensia Nakabiito a lead researcher in the ASPIRE study who talked about the vaginal ring as an HIV prevention tool for women. Although journalists did not produce any stories they were prepared for the upcoming results, which could be announced by early 2016, said Nakkazi.
There is enthusiasm from the journalists to be part of the monthly Science Cafés as evidenced from the consistency of the turn up, which also means that they are gaining knowledge and want to continuously improve their understanding and skills of reporting about health care issues.
Most of them record the speakers, get their contacts, take pictures and they usually ask a lot of questions creating lively debates, which indicates a genuine interest. Dr. Wakabi commented that it is what is said ‘off cuff’ that sinks in best.
“We have regular journalists attending and we hope they will learn the science and create a solid Network even beyond this,” said Nakkazi after the Science Café was concluded and journalists rushed to get sound bites.