Tuning in to citizen’s conversations about HIV/AIDS

More public and less experts: how do we re-connect the work of journalists with the work of citizens?

– by Marietjie Myburg –

For the last 10 years I have been working in the field of HIV and AIDS Communication. During this time, I have watched in frustration what should have been a conversation between citizens and people with power to change things (policy makers, planners), but was actually a conversation between the well-intentioned funders and (often opportunistic) politicians and bureaucrats.

I have watched how, instead of challenging the course of this conversation, journalists become the channels for UNAIDS, USAID and Bill and Melinda Gates to talk to and on behalf of citizens to Departments of Health and AIDS Councils and Presidents and celebrities with an attitude which Donaldo Macedo aptly describes in his foreword to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom: “There is no need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself (Freire, 2001:xxvi)”.

As a journalist I have always been fairly suspicious of the language of communication for development or communication for social change. I notice the same suspicion when engaging journalists – now from the side of the suspects. I want to believe that their suspicion, like mine, stem from an intuitive mistrust of the marketing and evangelical jargon that is characteristic of some versions of communication for development. More importantly, my experience of these models, that remains expert-driven despite the best intentions, is that they continue to be disempowering in that, instead of “providing sites where citizens can engage in the political process (2002:9-10)”  they demobilize people and limit their participation in self-determining decision making.

Drawn in to the modes of development speak, journalists seem unprepared to ask the why and the how questions. Without feeling their “objectivity” or “neutrality” compromised, journalists attend thousands of training sessions telling them how to “name” the pandemic, how to refer to the people who are sick, which photographs to use, what the gender issues were and how poverty fitted into the overall picture. While these are important issues to address, this kind of training has perpetuated reporting practices which centre on the “thin edge” of the story if I may borrow an analogy from a participant in one of the Highway Africa sessions on the media and development. Journalists seem content for the HIV and AIDS conversation to be dictated by the development and funding marketers and evangelists. Infections rates continue to rise. Ordinary citizens seem unmoved by these event-driven and statistical reports about unfathomable numbers of new infections and deaths.  Journalists tell me that editors are not interested in publishing stories about HIV. Editors tell me readers are not interested in reading stories about HIV.

Despite being declared a national emergency in many countries in Sub-Sahara Africa, the Afrobarometer survey which measures household perceptions about the quality of governance and democracy in 20 African countries, could not find one country in which citizens rated HIV and AIDS as the top problem on the development agenda – unemployment yes, poverty yes, food shortage, yes but not HIV and AIDS (“Key findings about public opinion in Africa,” 2002:1). This does not mean the problem does not exist or does not exist as a stark reality in the lives of the infected and affected. The statistics are validated when you talk to ordinary people. They tell the stories of loved ones who die. People talk of attending more funerals than they used to. In rural areas more and more burial services are the eerie reminders that the statisticians were correct. The problem is that most of the stories which journalists tell somehow leave most of us unaffected – at least unaffected enough to continue to have multiple partners, unprotected sex – it even provides space for a president to say he didn’t know anyone who has died of AIDS and a vice-president who declared in public that he had a shower after unprotected sex and he thought that would protect him from contracting the virus.

There is clearly a disconnect between the conversation about HIV and AIDS as conducted by the funders, aid agencies and health activists and the conversation as conducted by citizens. One conversation is about PLWAs, OVCs, and rights based approaches while another is about how to care for sick people if they don’t want to take ARVs or what to do with children whose parents are sick and have died. Journalists are covering the numerous conferences and press briefings and reporting the statistics and launch of new prevention programmes and policies. On the odd occasion they even tell a story from a “human angle”.  Despite indications that the HIV and AIDS conversation is an important one, journalists, for the most part, seemed to be happy for the conversation to be dictated by the very funders and development agents they do not trust. While remaining suspicious in the corridors, they are seduced by the simplicity of reducing HIV and AIDS to statistics and sensation. Safely ensconced by the easy access to these themes journalists seem to lack the courage to tell an important story in a way that is compelling enough to make a difference.

But what is “compelling enough to make a difference”?

This question takes me one step back and out of the HIV and AIDS arena to examine the general relationship between citizens and journalists. To tell compelling stories journalists turn to people, not institutions or organisations. That is Journalism 101. To tell stories that make a difference, journalists do not quote statistics or regurgitate press releases. But for journalists to want to talk to people about HIV and AIDS they need to believe that people have a story to tell which is worth more than the stories from officials at the Department of Health or the Presidency or UNAIDS. They need to value the narratives that come from ordinary citizens who live in ordinary houses and sometimes in less than ordinary circumstances. James Carey said:

“The god term of journalism – the be-all and end-all, the term without which the entire enterprise fails to make sense – is the public. Insofar as journalism is grounded, it is grounded in the public” – James Carey

And that is what I find wanting in the relationship between citizens and journalists. The potential of journalists to build a habit of participative and informed political discussion between government and citizens and between citizens and citizens has been eroded by a breakdown in trust between citizens and journalists. This breakdown is in part due to journalists being seen as experts favouring other experts as sources and marginalising the views of citizens – not just in relation to covering of events but also in the investigation of possible solutions to public problem solving. This mirrors technocratic and expert-driven tendencies in government which alienate citizens further from political process.

In the past year I have been looking for clues in three theoretical frameworks – democratic professionalism, public journalism and deliberative democracy – to explore the effects of expert-driven professionalism both in the state and in journalism and the implications of this approach for the relationship of journalists with citizens. It proposes that a shift in the way journalists consider their professional role could lead to a re-assessment of the political work of journalists and the political work of citizens and build new habits of participation and discussion in the political process of communities. This could, of course, also suggest implications for the way journalism education and training is currently conceived.

In application my colleagues and I at Idasa have developed learning material which we are testing in training with journalists, government communicators and civil society representatives in East London, George, Newcastle and the Sekhukhune District Council in the Limpopo Province. This learning material covers approaches to journalism with citizens in general and not HIV and AIDS in particular. We have used the same material with particular reference to journalism approaches to reporting on police reform in the DRC and we would soon start to work with a Community of Media and Communication Practice consisting of journalists from nine countries in Sub-Sahara Africa which will have a particular focus on reporting socio-economic aspects of HIV and AIDS. These include ways in which the pandemic affects local government’s ability to deliver services and manage and spend budgets and also reporting how the pandemic affects the ability of citizens to participate in democratic process.

The learning material focuses on the ability of journalists to tune in to conversations that are taking place among citizens and to reflect those conversations in a way that would provide information that is useful in decision making processes on individual and local community level. There is also an attempt to explore with journalists how to provide public space for citizens to identify and describe problems AND to propose solutions appropriate to the communities where they live and work – information that catalyzes a conversation about citizens as active participants in solving public problems instead of turning citizens, in the words of Cole Campbell, in eavesdroppers on a conversation between experts.

In developing the learning material we are guided by the following questions:

1.    Do current themes of HIV and AIDS reporting reflect the way citizens interpret HIV and AIDS problems in their own communities and does it propose solutions to HIV and AIDS problems as put forward by citizens as well as experts?
2.    Do journalists describe the aspirations and work of citizens in a way that imagine citizens, along with government, as people with confidence and talents who are co-creators of society and not merely clients and users of services provided by governments?
3.    Does this reporting acknowledge and galvanize the social and cultural assets and capacities of citizens in HIV and AIDS problem-solving?

In one of the sessions at this conference, in response to a question on the use of new media in elections, one of the panellists said that citizens were getting more and more confident to use technology to inform other citizens. “We must make sure citizens don’t beat us at our own game,” he said. In response I quote Paulo Freire: “This type of speaking from the top down is in itself a clear demonstration of the absence of a democratizing mentality, the absence of the intention to speak ‘with’ (Freire, 2001:103).”

Unless journalists speak “with” citizens about HIV and AIDS, or any other of the big common challenges that face communities, “the media of communication” in the words of James Carey, will continue to be “sites of competition and conflict” and communities will continue attempts to “seize newspapers and other journals to lay down definitions of group life, identity and purpose (Carey, 1997:32)”.


Carey, J. W. (1997). The Chicago School and the history of mass communication research. In E. S. Munson & C. A. Warren (Eds.), James Carey – a critical reader (pp. 14-33). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Freire, P. (2001). Pedagogy of freedom – ethics, democracy and civic courage. Lanham, Boulder, New York, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Jacobs, S. (2002). How good is the South African media for democracy? Mapping the South African public sphere after apartheid. Unpublished research paper. Transregional Center for Democratic Studies New York.
Key findings about public opinion in Africa. (2002). Afrobarometer briefing paper no. 1: Afrobarometer.


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