Thursday, 30 October 2014

The uneasy alliance between media and scientists

WYCLIFFE MUGA writes: The fight against AIDS requires a massive and continuing public health information campaign and the media is crucial to this. Newspapers, radio stations, TV stations, and online blogs are all needed to communicate the research findings of biomedical research scientists, the implementation of protocols, policy change, etc.
That, at any rate, is the noble theory.

The reality is that we will sometimes get misleading headlines like these:

· Contraceptives Double HIV Risk – THE STAR (KENYA)

· HIV-ve Women Test Positive After Drug Trials – THE SUNDAY MAIL (ZIMBABWE)

· Microbicide Gel’s Dismal Failure: Who Shoulders The Blame – THE POST (ZIMBABWE)

All these headlines, incidentally, are fatally flawed, and in no way an accurate indication of the stories that follow: Contraceptives do not double HIV risk; no women in Zimbabwe who went into drug trials HIV negative ended up being HIV positive; and microbicide gels are one of the more promising interventions against HIV infection, currently in the pipeline.

The headlines were almost certainly the work of over-eager newspaper sub-editors, intent on “sexing up” what they considered to be uninspired (and possibly, incomprehensible) articles on HIV clinical trials

And they remind us that there can be no cosy relationship between media practitioners (who are primarily concerned with TV ratings or newspaper circulation) and research scientists (who will often declare as “an exciting breakthrough”, what the rest of the world sees as a very small step in a very long journey).  On the contrary there will be a constant tension between the two, punctuated by an occasional clash.

It also raises this question: given a limited sum to spend on improving communication on HIV, would you use this money to teach journalists the complexities of biomedical research? Or would you provide training for researchers on how to work with the media?

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