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Bhekisisa wins the 2021 Reconciliation Award for its role in reporting on the COVID pandemic

The Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism was awarded the 2021 Reconciliation Award from the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. This award recognises the work our team has done over the past year to cover the COVID pandemic and the role our organisation has played in advancing healthcare solutions through reporting on health and social justice issues across Africa.

We at Bhekisisa are incredibly honoured, humbled and grateful for this award tonight.

To be mentioned among the likes of Albie Sachs, Tim Modise, Mary Burton, Sibongile Khumalo and the Socio-Economics Rights Institute, is a great privilege. 

And to be recognised by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, an organisation Bhekisisa looks up to, is indeed an honour. We’d like to thank the IJR not just for the recognition, but also for the impactful work that they do.  

What makes this award even more special to us, is that it’s an unlikely accolade for a media organisation. 

Because the media so often divides, rather than reconciles people. And during pandemics such as COVID, journalists hold the power to make or break communication.

As reporters we have the ability to shape people’s understanding of the pandemic and influence how they behave. Our stories affect which measures people choose to use to protect themselves, and most importantly, which lifesaving services and treatments they take up — or not. 

That’s why the news media’s reporting during a public health crisis such as COVID can literally mean the difference between life and death. 

And in the case of COVID, that translates into how we report on the science of vaccines, on the emergence of new variants, on proven, but also unproven treatments, on the politics of creating policies, on the way money gets spent and on the inequities that the pandemic has consistently exposed.  

When Bhekisisa was founded in 2013, we created it to produce reporting that would integrate science and health policy in such a way that it would make media consumers realise how those two fields directly impact their lives and in so many ways define what social justice looks like on this continent. 

We started off as a small health desk of three people at the Mail & Guardian and in July 2019, about nine months before COVID hit SA, we left our mothership and became an independent media organisation that now provides copy to four major media outlets in SA.   

Bhekisisa uses narrative journalism to make science and health policy come alive. This is a form of journalism that uses literary techniques such as suspense and the development of characters to tell stories, so it’s a little bit like writing a short story that’s true.

For this type of journalism you need to spend a lot of time in the field to find those characters and then return to the office to find the studies and evidence to support what you found in the field.

But then COVID happened. And our reporters couldn’t go to the field. Policies and lockdown rules changed each month. And science, well, often changed overnight. 

That meant we had to change how we did things. We had to find ways to access case studies that didn’t involve going to the field ourselves. But mostly, we were forced out of our comfort zone of narrative journalism, into a focus on explanatory journalism that broke down complex science into easily understood language so that people could use it to make informed decisions about their health. 

Because if you can’t make informed choices, you’re no longer living in a democratic state — and those decisions pertain to health and your right to social justice as much as they pertain to who you vote for. 

We started to produce double the number of multimedia videos than before COVID, because it allowed us to explain science with pictures and animation and to reach a much wider audience than if we only produced print stories. We hosted webinars and turned them into video stories. And we discovered new ways of reporting such as Twitter threads and subtitled video clips that are circulated on our social media platforms instead of our website. 

COVID hit the world at a time when social media has become an even more influential platform to distribute information than traditional forms of publishing and to ignore that would be to ignore evolution. 

Yet during this pandemic platforms such as Twitter have been used to do so much damage through the spread of misinformation. But we shouldn’t forget that the same platform can be as powerful to achieve the opposite: to bring life-saving information to people. 

Bhekisisa has, however, been very fortunate. More so than most other media outlets. 

Bhekisisa editor Mia Malan delivering the centre’s acceptance speech for the 2021 Reconciliation Award of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

When COVID happened, we had reporters who were equipped with an understanding of research methodology and virology and they had networks of contacts in the health and social justice sectors that they could draw on for help. They knew the difference between peer-reviewed studies and preprints and they knew where to go and look for studies. 

I’m convinced that if I woke our two senior health journalists, Joan van Dyk and Aisha Abdool Karim up at midnight, and asked them to name the studies on variants of concern in alphabetical order, they would do so. And if I asked our multimedia team to send me visuals of COVID tests, categorised by the way they work and how quickly and accurately they produce results, they’d smile and say: Piece of cake. 

Most other media outlets have not been as fortunate, because they lack the funds and resources to appoint and develop specialist reporters. Bhekisisa also has the luxury of time on our side, in the sense that we can produce analytical reporting without the pressure of having to also cover daily news developments.   

Moreover, Bhekisisa is donor-funded, which means that our income doesn’t depend on the advertising that declined so significantly in the first year of the pandemic. Donor-funding, in fact, became more available during the pandemic, because that’s what philanthropists do: they fund solutions to crises.

But we are also a very small team of only eight full-time staff members who have been spread thin during COVID. We had to learn to use everyone’s skills for everything.

Our programme manager, Rosaline Daniel, didn’t just write donor proposals and design budgets during COVID, she also became the proofreader of all our stories because she’s got a wonderful eye for detail. Our multimedia manager, Dylan Bush, also became our production manager because they’re great with managing processes and people and we now have far too many publishing partners for reporters to handle in addition to their stories. And each of our social media channels are now managed by a different staff member, or team of staff members, because these platforms developed such different identities during COVID, that it no longer makes sense for one person to manage them. 

We also learned many, many lessons during this pandemic. Perhaps the biggest one has been about the value of partnerships. 

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Partnerships are one of the most powerful tools to use during times like these to get things done during pandemics. Pandemics speed up processes because the need to find solutions is so much more urgent. And partnerships don’t just provide more hands so that things get done faster, they also enrich what you do and they lead to relationships that enrich you and from which you benefit long after a time of crisis has passed. 

And we, ironically, need to thank a pandemic, for the partnerships we’ve formed that not only helped us to do our work better, but also provided us with an opportunity to help others. 

When we couldn’t go to the field during hard lockdowns, we partnered with a community media organisation, Eh!woza, which trains residents of Khayelitsha to produce videos on health issues in their community. Because of Eh!woza, we were able to include the voices of grassroots people in our stories without having to track them down ourselves.

Today, that partnership has developed to one where Eh!Woza’s field team visited our office this month to be trained by our multimedia team to tell stories that can be published in the mainstream media — and that focus on health issues beyond COVID. The team will return in January after a field visit so that our team can mentor them in putting those stories together — and we will benefit from those as much as Eh!Woza, because we’ll be able to publish their stories which will make our content more diverse and nuanced. 

During COVID Bhekisisa also formed a strong and extremely valuable partnership with the data journalism organisation Media Hack to tell data stories we’d never have been able to do without their skills. In exchange, we helped them to access data they wouldn’t have been able to access without our relationships with scientists and health department officials. We have since expanded this partnership to produce non-COVID related content such as an in-depth analysis of femicide data in South Africa and on World Aids Day next week we will co-publish a data journalism story on the use of HIV prevention pills in the country.

We partnered with epidemiologists and scientists to host online science journalism courses for African journalists that could help staff who don’t have a background in science or health journalism to better understand the now complex science they had to report on.  

But partnerships weren’t only external, they were also formed within our office. Joan and Aisha, found it frightening to work separately on stories with well, frightening science, and started to do all their stories together. We no longer address them separately, we have a name for them: JoAisha. It’s a beautiful, powerful partnership that has not only resulted in better stories, but also in one in which they can support each other mentally through a taxing pandemic. 

I’d like to acknowledge my team: JoAisha, Rosaline Daniel, our programme manager; Dylan Bush, our multimedia and production manager; Yolande Mdzeke and Mohale Moloi, our multimedia journalists and Gopolang Makou, our impact and engagement officer. 

I’m the luckiest editor in the world to have a team like this. 

To end off with, COVID stole many people from us. By now, most of us know someone or of someone who died of COVID. 

One such person is the late HIV doctor Sindisiwe van Zyl, who died in April. She worked with Bhekisisa on a number of projects and she was a close friend of mine personally.  

Sindi taught me one of the most important lessons of my life: treat everyone as equals, regardless of whether they’re your patient, your student or your neighbour. She taught Bhekisisa to share the privileges we enjoy with others in a way that makes the health and media world better and stronger.

She taught that science, used in the right way, can reconcile, deliver social justice and help a democratic country such as ours, to thrive.

This was Bhekisisa’s acceptance speech for the 2021 Reconciliation Award of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation delivered by the centre’s editor-in-chief Mia Malan.