BOTSWANA: Bridging the HIV/AIDS information/communication gap

harare, 5 November 2001 (PlusNews) - The Harare-based regional AIDS awareness organisation SAfAIDS conducted a "strategic communications workshop" for NGO information officers and media practitioners in Botswana last month. The initiative arose out of recommendations by media partners on the need for improved NGO-media relationships to "promote accurate, sustained communication and coverage of HIV/AIDS", SAfAIDS said in a statement.

A total of 16 participants attended the workshop held between 16 and 18 October. Media representation included Radio Botswana, The Gazette, Botswana Guardian and Mmegi, while the Women NGO Coalition, Botswana Network of Positive People and Botswana Family Welfare Association represented the NGO sector. The three-day workshop explored how the media and NGOs can forge professional links to better understand, communicate, share and exchange information on HIV/AIDS and related issues.

According to the SAfAIDS report, the workshops objectives were three-fold:

- To better understand the role of the media and NGOs
- To develop improved understanding of media-speak and NGO-speak
- To strengthen links between the media and NGOs.

Using a participatory methodology that included gallery walks, group discussions, summary writing, role-plays, case studies and energisers, participants explored the following:

Professional roles and responsibilities

Three core roles were identified for NGOs and media working in HIV/AIDS communication – to inform, educate and communicate. Entertainment was also identified, and traditional forms of communication such as drama and theatre were recognised as important means of HIV/AIDS communication, particularly for those at grassroots level. Participants also reflected on the important role of the media in shaping social norms and creating informed debate. Several other means were identified within each category, and these included information technology, well-packaged information (news releases, press kits, fact sheets), press conferences and seminars. The concept of 'reflective learning' was identified as another role: two participants felt that HIV/AIDS information requires moments of reflection to influence change in attitude, thinking or behaviour.

Personal perceptions and attitudes towards HIV/AIDS

Participants examined their personal attitudes and beliefs towards HIV/AIDS using the 'true/false' technique of participatory learning methodology. Several common beliefs were re-evaluated: 9 participants felt that HIV/AIDS is largely caused by promiscuity which is 'rife' in Botswana, and thus the main cause of HIV/AIDS; 8 participants felt that masturbation is an unsafe practice and 'heightens the urge for sex' (one participant indicated that masturbation affected him mentally); most participants agreed that men drive the epidemic (11) because they have economic and financial power in their relationships; 50 percent (8) of the participants felt that homosexuality is abnormal, and a punishment from God; only 3 participants agreed that cultural practices facilitate the spread of HIV/AIDS - the majority indicated that African culture teaches people to be responsible and not to engage in sex before marriage. However, views swayed when examples of practices such as 'dry sex' and wife inheritance were explained and discussed in detail.

Other personal perceptions and attitudes included: false cure claims – a participant stated that a personal friend of his had progressed from being HIV positive to AIDS, but this was reversed into an HIV negative status after serious prayer! Condoms are not perceived as a safe sex method; one participant indicated that it is widely believed that condoms contain worms and are therefore an ineffective method of safe sex.

As producers and providers of HIV/AIDS information and communication, it is important for media and information officers to distinguish between fact and opinion. Most of the beliefs expressed were widely-held opinions that continue to distort the truth and misinform society. HIV/AIDS information is therefore contingent upon evidence-based information. It is important that message-providers such as media and information officers re-evaluate their cultural beliefs and social 'values' - some which are potentially harmful and contribute to the increasing rates of HIV infection. Instead, they should base their stories on fact and write as professionals, casting aside personal prejudice and feeling.

Common problems encountered when producing HIV/AIDS information

Using the Margolis Wheel, a participatory problem-solving technique, participants explored issues encountered by media and NGOs when producing HIV/AIDS information. Three common areas were identified:

- Lack of collaboration: a 'missing link' exists between media and NGOs, therefore relationships need to be established to improve information exchange on HIV/AIDS. Both need to keep each other informed of developments to promote information flow;
- Lack of trust/transparency: mistrust prevails between NGOs and the media. One participant explained that NGOs keep the media at 'arm’s length' so as not to expose corruption. On the other hand, the media was accused of breaking professional rules by feeding into the profit-making business of publishing, evident by use of catchy, dramatic headlines, bribery and sensationalist coverage;
- Lack of information/knowledge: sources are limited and media are exposed to high levels of bureaucracy when seeking information, ie preparing questionnaires which take weeks for a response. NGOs need to re-package their information in an accessible manner and avoid use of medical jargon, difficult-to-understand statistics and unfamiliar terms, acronyms and terminologies.

In mapping solutions, the following suggestions were highlighted: establishment and regular updating of NGO websites to keep media informed about news, activities and events; increased dialogue between both sectors to avoid sensationalism and voyeurism; develop and implement editorial policies or codes of conduct to use as guidelines; widen the information source base from government officials to experts in the field, activists, PWAS and eminent people.

Coming to terms with HIV: a case study

Dipuo Bogatsu, an HIV-positive woman and weekly columnist for the Voice newspaper related her true-life story to the group who were subsequently tasked to write a brief summary on Dipuo’s testimony. The NGO group compiled a press release, whilst the media group prepared a news story. Whilst both write-ups highlighted important aspects of Dupuo’s testimony, the following areas were identified as important components of a story:

- Catchy headline (if it is appealing enough, the editor will use it)
- Name and contact details of person writing the release (should the editor want further information, or needs to seek clarification);
- Use of a variety of information sources (medical experts, government, PWAS, academics, activists, researchers, etc);
- Statistics, but only in a localised context – easy to read and interpret;
- Support statements with relevant research or 'best practices'.

Developing a media strategy

The mass media represent the largest form of information today and have the potential to influence policy and social reality. NGOs saw the benefit of developing a media strategy and recognised the need for the following: well-planned communication strategy with goals and objectives; feature HIV/AIDS communications high on the agenda; recognise the importance and value of partnerships with the media; strategy communication has difficulties because of lack of resources, negative experiences, attitudinal problems and inexperience.

Suggestions for building a good media strategy included:

- Designating a media relations or liaison person and/or have a unit for media relations;
- Have clear goals or mission statement that should reflect in any media correspondence;
- Conduct an assessment of the available news media in an NGO’s domain; media should not only be reactive to events, but strive to maintain sustained coverage of HIV/AIDS;
- Develop and maintain a regularly updated list, and send information to all on the contact list;
- Maintain personal contacts with journalists;
- Identify the news value of organisation’s projects, event and activities;
- Plan in advance for media coverage of key activities and events of the organisation

(Source: DevComs, Nigeria, 2001).

Step-by-step guide to writing a press release

Participants were taken through the various stages of writing a press release, using guidelines from A Media Handbook for Women (USIA, 1995) and agreed on the need to incorporate the following:

- Answering the five 'W’s' in the first paragraph: who? What? Where? When? and Why? With the use of quotes. Sentences and paragraphs always short for easy reading;
- Developing a compelling lead and creating a good headline;
- Getting the release to the right person and ensuring it is used, plus making follow up and building partnerships through regular share and exchange of information.


The workshop evaluation emphasised the need for improved media-NGO relations to work jointly in placing 'HIV/AIDS high on the editorial agenda' through sustained media coverage. Another recommendation cited the need to establish a task force of media and NGO representatives to meet regularly and discuss pertinent issues around coverage and communication of HIV/AIDS, with the need for on-going training. This need, according to participants, was highlighted by BOCONGO, the national AIDS umbrella organisation, during the first annual NGO week in October that received widespread media coverage in support of NGO efforts and their response to HIV/AIDS.

Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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