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Should we start a training course for journalists?

August 30, 2011 - 01:06 -- Bart G.J. Knols

The past few weeks have been good for the press when it gets to malaria. First they discovered what many of us knew all along: that resistance to pyrethroids is on the rise and may jeopardise the usefulness of LLINs. Then they marvelled at the 'outbreak' in Greece, where six were diagnosed with P. vivax malaria without ever having left the country. And this week's high is the story that mosquito numbers in Africa are dropping for some mysterious reason. The more money that goes into malaria research, the more scientists are coming out with remarkable findings, and the press gulps it up and make the stories ever more gripping. Which I understand...

With the web and numerous other press outlets providing endless opportunities to write, no surprise that one story exceeds the other in claims and grandiose statements. 

The Greece story got immediately linked to climate change, fuelled by the avian malaria story in the UK. The good days for Europe, that malaria is gone apart from a small focus in Eastern Turkey, are over. Malaria, so it was claimed, is on its way back. As a professional reading MalariaWorld, you know of course that this is nonsense. Numerous cases of import malaria have been described before, and were quickly controlled - end of story. In the USA, over last 15 years, there have been at least 5 such events, and malaria is still not back there. Even Belgium had three autochtonous cases last year, of P. falciparum, but the disease is not spoiling the fun for this country more in need of a government than hot stories about malaria. In any case, any journalist that would have gone deeper into the Greece story would have found that for three years in a row cases have been observed, but that the risk remains extremely low.

As for the decline of anophelines in Africa, this presents an even hotter issue for the press. Obviously, the fact that this decline is 'mysterious' is a gift for journalists, as any guess as to why this is happening is justified. And so the link to climate change (which is always good for hits on Google) is all over, besides wild claims that we're succeeding so well in malaria control that we caused this ourselves. And then, isn't it always a good laugh to see how little journalists know about mosquitoes based on the pictures they add to their stories? Almost invariably we see pictures of Aedes aegypti next to articles about malaria. Even trustworthy sites like the BBC always make the same mistake.

As we scientists are producing more and more interesting results, should we let journalists continue to make errors in what they write about our work? I have certainly had a few times where I rather would not have liked to see my work in the press based on what I read. I'm convinced many of you MalariaWorld readers have the same experience.

Is it time for us to set up a training course for journalists, so they finally get a better understanding of what they are writing about?

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