Newsrooms are shrinking, and the news cycle is faster — and longer than ever. So why do we still need specialists reporting units? Ask Pontsho Pilane, this year’s Discovery Health Journalist of the Year.
“The biggest challenge of being a health journalist is understanding complex scientific terms and translating that into easily accessible language for readers without being scientifically incorrect,” Pilane says.
“Joining Bhekisisa expanded my skills in using evidence-based research to support and elevate the importance of a story."
“Working here has also honed my skills in narrative writing as a tool to draw in readers who would not necessarily be interested in health issues”, she explained.
Pilane, a Mail & Guardian employee seconded to Bhekisisa, also won best upcoming health journalist and Discovery Health Foundation’s nation builder awards for her work on access to safe and dignified menstruation and autism. She was nominated alongside Bhekisisa reporter Joan van Dyk and Bhekisisa deputy editor Laura Lopez Gonzalez in the country’s only health journalism competition.
The Bhekisisa team was also finalists in the health news category.
Listen: Pilane speaks to 702's Gugu Mhlungu on what it takes it be a great health journalist
Established in 2013, the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism is a content partner of the M&G and focuses on solutions-based narrative features and analysis from South Africa and around the continent. The centre of excellence strives to not only highlight healthcare problems but to interrogate the responses that could fix them. The donor-funded organisation prides itself on growing writers who can both understand and translate science but also weave compelling narratives to tell great stories.
Khadija Patel, editor-in-chief of the M&G said Pilane’s three awards were a testimony to Pilane’s talent, hard work and dedication.
“These awards are so richly deserved,” she told the paper.
This is the fourth time in the past five years that a journalist at Bhekisisa has been named Discovery Health Journalist of the year. Bhekisisa’s founding editor Mia Malan won the title in 2013 and 2016 and former Bhekisisa journalist Ina Skosana in 2014.
“At Bhekisisa we’ve created the space for journalists to specialise in health journalism and develop their storytelling skills. We are fortunate to have donor funding that helps us to do in-depth stories and mentor reporters to excel. We are fortunate to have passionate and talented journalists on our team”, says Malan.
This kind of funding has also given Pilane the sort of time to develop stories that have become increasingly rare in short-staffed newsrooms.
She explains: “Having donor funds has given me a lot more breathing space as a writer. Because we don’t work on a lot of hard news, I have more time and flexibility to work on a story, which I wouldn’t have been possible if I wasn’t allowed to specialilse.
“It allows me to immerse myself in a story fully and the case studies I am interviewing, which often makes my stories stronger.”
Malan credits the M&G for providing Bhekisisa with the support to not only develop great stories but also ensuring that they reach policymakers.
“We are very grateful for the platform the Mail & Guardian has given us and for the publication’s support – it’s part of the reason why Bhekisisa has been able to thrive,” she says.
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