Bhekisisa, the Mail & Guardian Health Journalism Centre that provides in-depth health stories and also trains and mentors African journalists in health reporting, was launched in Johannesburg on Thursday night. It entered South Africa's media sphere via a critical thinking forum on the government's planned national health insurance scheme. About 200 media leaders, health policymakers, academics and health company chief executives attended the event.
Bhekisisa means "to scrutinise" or "to look closely".
"isiZulu-speaking patients who want to be thoroughly examined by a physician will often ask the doctor to bhekisisa them," explained centre director and M&G health editor Mia Malan. "The M&G Health Journalism Centre will bhekisisa health issues and you, as our media consumers, will hopefully bhekisisa us to make sure we do our job well."
In addition to providing the M&G with extensive health reporting, Bhekisisa offers fellowships of three months each to South African journalists from other media houses, as well as reporters from Southern African Development Community countries. Fellows receive intensive mentoring with regards to health reporting for three months at the M&G's health desk, and then return to their home publications to apply their new skills. "The objective of the fellowships is to strongly contribute towards increasing the number of health reporters, who are able to deliver high quality health stories on the continent," said Malan.
The centre also hosts public discussion forums on health-related issues.
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, who attended the launch as one of the forum panelists, commented: "Focused discussions such as tonight's Bhekisisa forum on the potential impact of the NHI and also the challenges that the scheme could face in rural areas are critical. They bring together different role players in the private and public health sectors, nongovernmental organisations, health workers and the media to constructively discuss how we can take such issues forward."
He said it's crucial that journalists receive training about "the public health care system, particularly primary health care".
"So often the media focuses on curative health care, and what's wrong with hospitals, forgetting about reporting on the preventative aspect of health: how are we going to prevent diseases such as HIV and TB from happening in the first place?" he said.
Bhekisisa is a 50-50 private public partnership between the M&G and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, GIZ.
According to M&G editor-in-chief, Nic Dawes, traditional models for both funding and producing great public interest journalism are facing extreme challenges. He said the M&G has "learned that openness to partnership is fundamental to the durability, quality, and relevance" of the newspaper's work. "Bhekisisa brings that approach to bear on the critical, and gravely under-serviced area of health journalism, through both the production of truly excellent reporting, the training of new journalists, and the dissemination of ideas about how the field can better be covered," he said.
Bernd Appelt from GIZ's multisector HIV Prevention programme said: "The M&G was the most obvious paper for GIZ to invest in as it's widely read all over Africa and extremely influential." He added that GIZ invested in the project because it wants to see health issues "mainstreamed" in the media. "Having a health reporting and training centre right in the middle of an influential newsroom makes for maximum impact, not only in terms of the quality of health reporting, but also the amount of space allocated to health issues," said Appelt.
Media monitoring and evaluations organisation, Media Monitoring Africa, welcomed the initiative. "Health in general is one of the most under reported subjects; there are issues that get coverage but those usually happen in a political context. There is a lack of specialised reporters, not just in health, but across the board. We hope the M&G Health Journalism Centre will fill that gap," the organisation's director, William Bird, said.
Stellenbosch University science journalism Professor George Claassen said health coverage in South Africa was sometimes of a low standard as "science is neglected". He added: "People are appointed as health journalists without any training in science. I am delighted that the M&G Health Journalism Centre will contribute towards training and improved health journalism."