Written by Brian Ligomeka, Centre for Solutions Journalism, Malawi
In Malawi, abortion is restricted, and CSJ and other organisations are advocating for the law reform. The CSJ works with the media by producing content – articles, videos and stories – for television, radio, newspapers, magazines and online platforms. The media amplifies the messages we want to get out.
We also offer journalists specialised training in reporting SRHR and LGBTI issues so they can positively cover them. Besides, we work with community groups by civic-educating them on SRHR issues and training members of the community in advocacy. Finally, we also collaborate with the government by advocating for SRHR law reforms.
To measure the impact of the media content we are producing is having on our target audiences by among others changing attitudes, we conduct pre and post-project surveys. We identify a sample of our intended target audience and administer a questionnaire, which measures their views and knowledge of SRHR issues. Then we invite the same people to watch our SRHR television programmes or ask them to read a column we run in the newspapers, or online.
About three to six months later, depending on what timeframe we have decided on, we go back to them and get them to answer the same questions as before. In this way, we assess if our media content has improved their knowledge or changed their attitudes on SRHR issues.
Sometimes people change their attitudes. In our pre-project implementation survey, one participant, for example, indicated that abortion should remain restricted. Six months later, after watching our SRHR television programme, the same participant changed his position when answering the same questionnaire. He observed that “government should legalise access to safe abortions to save lives of women.”
Out of 60 religious and traditional leaders, we offered training on the intersection of religion and sexual and reproductive health and rights, 42 of them are supportive of abortion law reform. Some of them have written articles in the newspapers while some have expressed their support on national television. To have a religious leader who was opposing abortion law reform change his views and start supporting law reform is an achievement made through our key stakeholders’ engagement.
On the impact of our media content, we once randomly selected 20 students. After we had done an initial assessment (through a questionnaire) of their attitudes, we made available to them 32 positive articles on the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. The objective of the survey was to assess if professionally written articles on abortion could improve the students’ knowledge of, and attitude towards, safe abortion. We also wanted to find out if positive media articles can lead to support for abortion law reform.
When we did the second survey, we found that 16 students had positively changed their attitude. We held a focus group discussion with them. During the discussion, some of the students who changed their positions from being anti-choice to pro-choice argued that it was important for abortion to be legalised in Malawi to reduce maternal deaths contributed by unsafe abortions.
We also have methodologies that we use to check the success, strengths and shortfalls of our media training.
One of the methods we use is that of doing a desk analysis of the stories that some media practitioners have covered before and after we offer them training. Over either three month or six-month period, we classify the quality of their stories as positive, negative or incomplete. In this way, we can track their ‘coverage journey’ of abortion and other SRHR issues. Apart from assessing quality, story tracking helps to quantify articles produced.
Most of the time, after training, they begin to publish and broadcast positive stories. To us, that is an indicator that the training had a positive impact. However, if we see that the trained journalists continue to publish negative or incomplete stories, we know that something was wrong with our training. We review the training content, presentations made, and post-training evaluation forms to identify weak areas that require improvements.
We categorise the stories into three groups:
A positive story is when it:
We brand a story a negative when it:
Incomplete stories include those that:
We’ve learnt about the impact of our work and how to adjust it to achieve maximum impact.
We have, for example, learned that to reach your target audience, you need to use the media product that they typically access. For instance, to reach those who can change the law, the cabinet ministers and MPs, it is better to use newspapers and national television. Most politicians read newspapers in the morning and watch television programmes in the evening. The youth gets most information from peers and social media.
The best effective way to disseminate to rural people in Malawi, the radio is the most effective tool. It is crucial to package the media content in local languages. Most of the content we produced was initially in English. The feedback we received was that to reach rural communities; we needed to deliver content in local languages as well. We adjusted accordingly.
During focus group discussions, we learnt that in a conservative society like Malawi when dealing with the issue of abortion, we should use a phased approach. We looked at SRHR issues as a continuum with some key issues being teenage and unplanned pregnancies, contraceptives scarcity and failure, unsafe and safe abortions, post-abortion care and the need for law reform on abortion. The approach enabled many stakeholders we engaged, including traditional and religious leaders, to understand the linkages between the different SRHR issues.
We also ask audiences generally to give us feedback on the media content we produce. That feedback, whether negative, neutral, or positive, assist us to measure the success of the projects that we are conducting with the media to influence attitudes. It also helps us to increase our knowledge of audiences as we advocate for law reform.
Yes, here they are:
Here are a couple of examples of positive stories on SRHR/abortion in the media:
The author of the above story is among the journalists who attended our training on how to report on abortion issues held in Malawi capital Lilongwe in 2018.
Here is an example:
Here is an example:
One of the questions being: Is the story about abortion or baby dumping?
For anyone involved in abortion media advocacy, I recommend the book titled “How to Talk About Abortion: A Rights Messaging Guide”. It can be accessed on https://www.ippf.org/sites/default/files/2018-08/ippf_abortion_messaging_guide_web_0.pdf
Another resource is Public Health Media Advocacy Action Guide: Elements Of A Media Advocacy Campaign. It can be accessed on: https://preventepidemics.org/wpcontent/uploads/2019/06/Elements_of_a_media_advocacy_campaign.pdf
Brian Ligomeka is a communications expert and sexual and reproductive health and rights activist currently serving as a Programmes Advisor for the Centre for Solutions Journalism (CSJ).
Brian has led in the implementation of projects advocating for decriminalization of abortion and the promotion of sexual minority rights in Malawi. Brian has addressed hostile audiences on several occasions when discussing ‘taboo’ issues.