By Wynona Latham
More than 100 stories have been produced by the 30 International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) HIV and AIDS Investigative Reporting fellows since the fellowship started in South Africa in 2011.
And the fellowship itself has had a life-changing impact with many who have come into contact with it.
South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) Multimedia journalist Siphosethu Stuurman, a 2013 Fellow, said the fellowship changed the way he approached the HIV narrative: “The fellowship opened my eyes. There are so many issues and stories related to HIV to be covered. I thought HIV reporting was overdone.
“This fellowship allowed me to look deeper and find stories. It’s exciting. If it were not for the fellowship, I wouldn’t have had that focus or ability to look deeper into the topic. Now I always look for something different that will capture the attention of my editor and the public. You can always find something new if you look deep enough,” he said.
Stuurman was speaking at a seminar to close the 2013 programme. It drew on lessons learned from three years of the ground-breakig programme which aimed to produce accurate, consistent and more in-depth reporting on HIV/AIDS. The lessons have been captured in a new booklet “Promoting Excellence in HIV Reporting”.
“Reporting on HIV continues to be a vitally important endeavor in order to focus the public eye on and shape the response to the epidemic,” said IWMF executive director Elisa Lees Muñoz in the forward of the booklet. “In spite of the widespread perception of “AIDS fatigue” on the part of both editors and readers/viewers, untold stories abound, as the IWMF’s HIV reporting fellowship programme in South Africa revealed.”
Speaking at the seminar in Johannesburg, Section 27 CEO and leading citizen activist Mark Heywood urged fellows not to become complacent around their approach to the epidemic. “There is a tendency to over-simplify the rising success of some initiatives. I worry that the increasing relaxed view of the seriousness of this issue could cause us to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory,” Heywood said.
Heywood, who has worked in various civil action campaigns such as the Leeukop Political Prisoners Support Committee and the Johannesburg Inner City Community forum, noted that there has been a decline in support from political and economic institutions. “The fact is that as our situation improves, there is a perceived sense of less urgency,” he said. “But, we are – at most – half way there to where we need to be.”
It was noted that the rate of new infections had dropped. Heywood argued that this required a change in how journalists push their stories forward. Success in the HIV story was being appropriated by various organisations including government, he said. “While they have helped, it is the civil society movements who have continued to push this issue far before these institutions and after them,” he said. “I hope that journalists recognise that if they keep pushing to connect with civil society, other institutions will follow.”
The fellows were also given a presentation by researchers from the Perinatal HIV Research at Wits University, Dr Erica Lazarus and Dr Fatima Laher, about their experience treating HIV positive people and their current attempts to find a HIV vaccine.
Laher urged the fellows to continue their work because “the world needs your stories because your stories act as an advocate for people who have no power to defend themselves”.
Issues discussed included the cost of stigma in reporting on HIV and AIDS, ethical challenges faced in depicting HIV and AIDS in film; and following the money in health delivery.
Hasina Gori, a 2013 fellow and reporter for SABC Digital News, noted the changing nature of how HIV narratives are created: “It is no longer a strictly health and science story. It is now a human interest story and that is how the story gets published because HIV and Aids is not a story about a disease but about people.”
The Star reporter and 2013 fellow, Vuyo Mkize, noted that the fellowship had allowed her access to training she needed. “This fellowship game at a time where I was still starting out with my health beat at The Star newspaper so I was still very wet behind the ears and I still had a lot to learn specifically about health and about covering health issues,” she said.