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Behind the Scenes: Attracting Mainstream Media Attention for Health Workers

An email in my inbox one month ago invited me to attend the first planning meeting for a visit by Pape Gaye, our president and CEO, to Tanzania, but it was also an invitation to elevate health and health workers as newsworthy topics to my former teammates: journalists.

For the visit, we planned for what seemed natural and simple, but as usual the events or items that we consider simple as consumers may be the most involved in their making. We prepared a series of meetings with executives of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and IntraHealth’s donors in Tanzania, a few more meetings with government officials from the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, an award ceremony where the Pauline Muhuhu Leadership Award would be presented, and a press conference. We aimed at making the health worker embodied in the Pauline Muhuhu Leadership Award big news in reputable newspapers and on the evening TV news.

Organizing the press conference was my responsibility. I had been on my new job for only three months; this is my first time working for an NGO with a focus purely on health. I have called journalists in the past to attend press conferences where health was on the agenda, but not in the way IntraHealth portrays it—through the lens of those working to sustain health: health workers.

So, is health an appealing topic to local journalists? Yes, with a number of qualifications. Ninety-five percent of media houses operate from Dar es Salaam, a throbbing metropolis whose readers, watchers, and listeners never get tired of politics, business, and, yes, entertainment. Journalists, like cooks, have to provide these ingredients in different quantities, often adding notable amounts of scandal, controversy, and ridicule to authority and popular figures to keep their followers interested. I remember following such recipes in my journalism days.

IntraHealth considers government officials, including those from the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and the Prime Minister's Office Regional Administration and Local Government, our important partners. We are not the kind of NGO that seeks to ridicule government policy errors in public. Getting journalists interested in attending presented a challenge.

What ultimately interested the more than 30 journalists who attended the June 14 press conference illustrates why it was difficult to attract them in the first place. Despite Pape Gaye’s eloquent delivery of the Pauline Muhuhu Leadership Award, Pauline Muhuhu’s own presence, and Jennifer Macias and Lucy Mphuru’s efforts to steer the press conference toward a discussion of health workers, questions from the floor focused almost exclusively on male circumcision! One of IntraHealth’s projects in Tanzania coordinates medical male circumcision to prevent HIV; their achievement in circumcising more than 52,000 males was mentioned and captured the journalists’ attention.

Nevertheless, the stories that were published did not cover male circumcision alone. Daily News focused on HIV prevention under the heading NGO pumps 15bn in two health projects; Star TV focused on IntraHealth Tanzania’s work in general on its evening news; East Africa TV mentioned the award; and, TV Clouds featured IntraHealth on three of its programs: news at 18:00, Clouds TV news at 19:30, and a magazine program. All flavored their announcement of the award with a discussion around male circumcision.

Now, looking at the press conference and the event in the past, I have a firsthand understanding of how the local press handles health issues. The negative stories (especially those critiquing the government) and controversy will always get more of the local press’s attention. For example, three days preceding the award event, a threat by the Medical Association of Tanzania to boycott work over pay grievances took front pages.

This is not to say IntraHealth’s image as a partner with the government and its championing of the health worker or health in general has to be a hard sell for media coverage. On the contrary, but it needs a different package. Topics like circumcision that attract media attention provide opportunities to get broader coverage about health workers, but instead of vying for front page space with quick selling and “perishable” topics like politics, scandal, and business news, IntraHealth’s positive stories of working with the government to change systems that improve the efficiency of the health worker are better told in a more substantial feature style on TV and in the newspaper.

To attract more media coverage of the health worker, I see us cultivating the ongoing interest of a number of journalists who produce features or are interested in health-related subjects and encouraging these journalists to write or film our work to package it into their features or documentaries.

Now, after the event, I see that the real invitation was one to view involvement with media from a new perspective. The experience proved enriching and calls me to dare and try again to get journalists interested in writing about health and the health worker.