Peruvian journalists and communication specialists during the workshop.

Journalists and Communication Specialists in Peru Workshop Focus on Bridging Gap Between Health Scientists and Journalists

Scientists and journalists have different work habits, but a bridge between the two groups can be created through open discussions of the sort that took place in Trujillo, Peru, in late April, according to the journalists, scientists and health information specialists who participated.

"Scientists believe that knowledge is cumulative," Dr. Lee B. Becker, director of the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research, told the group. As a result, scientists often do not like it when journalists ask them for conclusions from a specific study, preferring to say that the answer will only come with more research, Becker said.

"I've got a deadline," responded American journalist Fred Schulte of the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida. "I can't wait."

The two and Jenni Bergal, also of the Sun-Sentinel, were participating in a five-day workshop on Health Journalism organized by the Cox Center in collaboration with the city government of Trujillo. Also assisting with the workshop were the Department of Health Sciences at the University of Georgia and the Asociacion del Aire Ambiental, a nongovernmental organization in Lima, Peru. The Cox Center is a unit of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

The 22 journalists and health information specialists participating in the workshop, in collaboration with their American counterparts and the participating environmental health scientists, developed a check list for journalists who interview scientists, particularly those working on environmental health issues. Among other things, the journalists agreed they needed to do background preparation before interviewing scientists, work hard not to exaggerate the findings, and include in the stories details of the methods used by the scientists in their research.

"I believe journalists can understand the basics of science," Dr. Becker told the group. Dr. Becker said he teaches research methods to journalism students at the University of Georgia in order to help them learn how to translate the findings of science to the public.

The group agreed that journalists and health scientists share the goal of improved public health.

The workshop, which was held at the Los Conquistadores Hotel in downtown Trujillo, focused on such topics as developing sources for health stories, covering health epidemics, women's health issues, and techniques journalists can use to evaluate the quality of health care provided to the public.

Bergal, a senior staff writer at the Sun-Sentinel, joined Schulte as a discussion leader for the workshop. Schulte is investigative editor for the paper, which is based on Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Both Bergal and Schulte have extensive experience covering a wide variety of health issues.

Dr. Luke Naeher, a professor of environmental health science at the University of Georgia, and Ing. Manuel F. Aguilar Villalobos, an expert on automotive engineering and auto emissions and head of Asociacion del Aire Ambiental, presented the findings of an ongoing, multi-faceted study of air quality in Trujillo to the journalists. The group had a chance to interview the two experts about their work.

Among other things, the research shows that the air in Trujillo is filled with contaminants that research in other settings shows is harmful to human health. The team also reported that many Trujillo residents continue to use cooking fuels, such as coal briquettes, that produce emissions with potentially series negative health effects.

Three local health experts also joined in several of the sessions. Dr. Ana Maria Burga Vega, an epidemiologist, and Dr. Antonio Iyo Shigiyama, a gynecologist at the Regional Hospital in Trujillo, offered insights in their areas of speciality. Dr. Pedro Diaz Camacho, a local health official, contributed to the discussion of health care access.

"Finding people and telling their story is what is important" in covering health, Bergal told the group on the first day of the workshop. "When you have people who have been hurt, then readers respond," she added.

Schulte cautioned the group that evaluating the quality of health care is "one of the toughest things for journalists."

"Sometimes people die, and journalists want somebody to be held accountable. The journalists want a definitive answer."

In order to sort out the differences between a mistaken diagnosis or improper medical procedure and "an act of God," Schulte said, journalists need to "find the trend."

Bergal and Schulte, who often have teamed up on investigations, said the key is to make comparisons. For example, they said, one of their investigations of heart surgery outcomes at U.S. hospitals for veterans showed that some hospitals were considerably above average in terms of deaths during or after surgery, suggesting that there was a problem. One of the things the investigation showed was that hospitals that do relatively few such surgeries have the highest rate of failure.

The Peruvian journalists and health information specialists at the workshop work for local newspaper, radio, web sites and local hospitals and health agencies.

Following the workshop, Dr. Becker visited Dr. Eduardo Quiros Sanchez, dean of the Department of Communication Sciences at Antenor Orrego Private University (Universidad Privado Antenor Orrego) in Trujillo. The two discussed journalism instruction at their two institutions and ways in which the might collaborate in the future.

The Department of Communication at the Trujillo University has about 420 undergraduate students (out of a total university enrollment of 8,700) and 32 faculty members. The department is five years old.

The Grady College at the University of Georgia enrolls approximately 1,000 undergraduate students and has a faculty of 45.