BOB GARFIELD: The fight against the epidemic of HIV/AIDS in Africa is fraught with obstacles, among them poverty, poor education, superstition and sometimes erratic, even counterproductive government measures. In such an environment, the role of media becomes especially critical. But for 20 years, that role has often been confined to the bloodless recitation of government statistics, reporting that did little to increase the awareness of the life and death stakes on the ground. That's where the organization Internews and its Local Voices project comes in. The U.S. Agency for International Development-funded program trains journalists to understand the underlying science of the epidemic and to report on it from a more human perspective. Cece Fadope is the resident advisor in Nigeria. Mia Malan holds the same post in Kenya, and she says:
MIA MALAN: One of the challenges two years ago, when I went to Kenya was the fact that journalists always only had stories that would state statistics or that would state the opening of a project or a new office of a specific project, and what we have been trying to change over the past two years is to give AIDS a human face - in other words, teach them to have a case study in a story and to make the story accessible to the average person on the street. And we've also been trying to get them access to accurate statistics, access to CDC figures, that sort of thing, and also to get them to do follow up stories on a specific issue. And as a result of that, we have managed to, on the two main, the biggest radio stations in Kenya, the state broadcaster, the KBC and Radio Citizen, to establish two un-sponsored HIV/AIDS slots that now on a weekly basis covers HIV/AIDS stories of a quality standard. There will always be a case study, and there will always be opportunities for people to call in, and there will always be credible experts in the studio.
BOB GARFIELD: Mia, as long as we're talking about KBC, it has a weekly show called A Stitch in Time that takes a very unusual approach. Can you describe it?
MIA MALAN: It is an hour-long show that's broadcast on Thursday mornings. It will always start with a pre-recorded package that has a case study and that would explain the problem. And then it would be followed by live experts in the studio where people could call in or send cell phone text messages to ask questions. Since the program started, it's become so popular that on average they have 20 text messages - too many to be able to read on air - and there's been tangible results as a result of this program. One example is, a journalist did a story on matatus in Kenya. Matatus are public minibus taxis.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, these drivers of minibuses were actually having sex with their passengers in exchange for free rides. Correct?
MIA MALAN: Yeah. Actually, not just passengers, but very specific passengers: schoolgirls. That program was broadcast about a year ago. A year later, the government has announced a fully-fledged program for matatu drivers and has publicly acknowledged that this program played a big role in it.
BOB GARFIELD: Cece, tell me what's happening in Nigeria.
CECE FADOPE: Before Internews came on the scene, we'd hear a lot of reports in Nigeria about South Africa, about Uganda, but there was local denial of the spread of HIV in-country. So now, we're reporting information about communities in Nigeria, and people are seeing firsthand other people who are living positively with HIV so that they can begin to address their issue. You have to understand, Bob. Nigeria has been under military rule for a long time, and it's through democracy that now information is also being democratized.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there any evidence that Local Voices, your programming for Internews, is actually having an effect, cutting through forces that militate against awareness?
CECE FADOPE: One of the ways that Internews has been working with journalists in Nigeria is to look at the language of reporting about HIV and AIDS. For example, in the northern part of Nigeria, a state of Kano, the house word for HIV and AIDS is literally "the disease that shrinks people to death," and so a lot of people were afraid when they became infected to come out, to say that they were infected and get the cure and treatment that they need. After we worked with some of the radio Kano journalists, they started a dialogue within their news organization about how they should continue to use that word to report about HIV. Over the last three months, they've been having that debate and that dialogue and talking with imams, actually, and so they've come up with a new phrase to describe HIV that is no longer "the disease that shrinks people to death," but "the disease that weakens the human body," and it's a little more accurate, because people are living with HIV. They might be a little weaker, but people are living comfortably with HIV. So we've found that to be one of the differences that the Local Voices project is making.
BOB GARFIELD: And in Kenya, Mia?
MIA MALAN: One thing that I thought would be nice to say in particularly Kenya, is because ARV's, anti-retroviral drugs, are becoming so rapidly available, journalists all of a sudden have to report on scientific issues that they have no knowledge of.
CECE FADOPE: Exactly.
MIA MALAN: And it's a great challenge, too. All of a sudden, they need to know why can ARV's cause resistance, and how do funding principles work? You know, how do you access which program? And what drug combination you can take with others? And they need to report this. Generally they have absolutely no science background, and you can comfortably report on HIV when it comes to stigma and discrimination and not know about its science. But when it comes to ARV's, and it's all over Africa now, there's going to have to be a drastic increase on the scientific knowledge of journalists.
BOB GARFIELD: Is Internews doing anything to give the reporters the basic science background that they need to sufficiently cover this story?
MIA MALAN: Absolutely. Our workshops will normally be around a theme, so say if it's for instance an ARV workshop, we will make sure that this journalist understands the basic science of ARV's. It will be an expert that comes in and explains it. We will make sure that they meet a person who is using ARV's and they understand the social principles of it, of how do you - if you have to hide it at home or how other people respond to you, if you take it. And then, we will actually take them to a site visit where ARV's are being handed out, and they will actually see how that process works, and we will assist them to compiling a story and actually be there every step along the way when they do that.
CECE FADOPE: And we also help them analyze and interpret data so that when they are reporting about numbers, about procurement of ARV's, all of that makes sense in a way that people can understand it.
BOB GARFIELD: Mia, Cece, thank you very much.
CECE FADOPE: You're welcome.
MIA MALAN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Mia Malan and Cece Fadope work for the Internews program Local Voices which aims to improve media coverage of HIV/AIDS in Africa and Asia. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, dangerous books, a whole mess of studies, and the TV series that had an answer for everything. This is On The Media, from NPR.