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Media Science Cafes

Linking journalists with researchers, implementers, civil society, policy makers, regulators and policy makers for informed and accurate reporting on HIV, COVID and global health equity.

Since 2012, AVAC has worked to support health journalist associations in East and Southern Africa to strengthen the capacity of journalists to report on HIV prevention research. In 2020, AVAC expanded this work to include COVID science. Through the Media Science Café Program, AVAC partners with health media associations in Kenya, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe to bring journalists together with researchers, implementers, civil society, policy makers, regulators and policy makers to build relationships that will foster accurate reporting of HIV, COVID and other science or health stories in those countries.

Partners include: Internews, Media for Environment Science, Health & Agriculture (MEHSA) in Kenya, Health Journalist Network in Uganda (HEJNU), Media Science Cafe (MESICA) in Zambia, and Health Communicators Forum Zimbabwe through a partnership with the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre.

cafe participants sitting around a table

The café programs prepare journalists to report on the results of clinical trials and provide a platform for journalists to build relationships and trust with researchers, policymakers, regulators, implementers and civil society experts. Just as important, the café programs also offer a way for journalists to engage with representatives of marginalized communities who are most impacted by HIV and global health inequity, including gay men, gender diverse people, young women and sex workers, among others.

The hallmark of the program is monthly cafés—informal meetings with 20-30 journalists and expert speakers, typically researchers, policy makers, regulators or implementers as well as representatives from civil society—to discuss a timely topic.

Training and support for journalists alone is not enough to ensure accurate and nuanced coverage. Accurate, compelling and impactful reporting also depends on researchers with skills to engage with journalists effectively, open to questions and able to explain science in plain language. Civil society allies who provide critical advocacy perspectives and often serve as translators of science are also essential for inclusive media coverage that accurately captures the full impact of a given issue. AVAC and our partners have built a cadre of experts who understand the importance of media engagement and work as partners with journalists to ensure accurate information reaches the public.

The Media Café Program has:

  • Provided a platform for engagement and networking within and across countries and laid the groundwork for ongoing dialogue between key journalists and scientists, implementers, advocates, regulators and policy makers on scientific topics related to HIV, sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR), and more recently COVID-19.
  • Updated journalists on emerging issues in biomedical HIV prevention research and implementation, SRHR and COVID-19.
  • Helped journalists to generate story ideas, foster peer critiques of their work and engage in thought provoking debate.
  • Prepared journalists to report on prevention trial research and results; grapple with complicated science such as HIV cure research and HIV treatment; better understand domestic and donor funding for HIV programs; recognize human rights issues for key populations; and, more recently, understand COVID vaccine science and the nuances of vaccine hesitancy.
  • Been supported by topic-specific regional trainings in East and Southern Africa; “help desk” support for reporters covering key HIV conferences; ongoing support to health journalists from veteran science journalists through a partnership with Internews—an organization focused on building the capacity of media professionals, human rights activists, and information entrepreneurs across the globe.

Experience with COVID-19

In early 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic became the dominant news story around the globe, media café partners—with the support of AVAC and Internews—turned to helping journalists understand the pandemic and the science behind COVID-19 research.

The Cafés quickly moved from in-person meetings to Zoom cafés and implemented “Cross-Border Cafés,” which brought together journalists and experts from the four café countries and other African countries for updates on emerging issues, including the impact of COVID-19 on HIV research, COVID-19 treatment and vaccine trials in Africa, and clinical trial results for both COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics.

As the world confronted COVID-19, AVAC and the Café partners also grappled with an “infodemic”, and it’s been hard for journalists to sieve through an overwhelming volume of information at breakneck speed to write timely and accurate stories. With the support of AVAC, the Media Café conveners helped journalists differentiate fake, over-hyped information from accurate, verifiable information derived from trustworthy sources and linked them to COVID-19 experts in their countries.

If you are a journalist who wants to be connected to the café program or receive information about trainings and other opportunities, please contact us at media@avac.org.