How to sustain media coverage of SRHR issues

Written by Brian Ligomeka, Centre for Solutions Journalism, Malawi

What advocacy work and campaign is your organisation involved in?

Our organisation, Centre for Solutions Journalism (CSJ) is a human rights media organisation, which is advocating for abortion law reform in Malawi. We use media advocacy and key stakeholder engagement as part of our strategies. In media advocacy, we train journalists in SRHR reporting. Since September 2017, we have a weekly newspaper column called Sexual and Reproductive Health which is published in The Daily Times [of Malawi]. Since then we have published over 100 SRHR articles. We have also been running a fortnightly SRHR television programme called Freedom and Choices since February 2019.

What media coverage problem did your organisation face?

The problem we faced was on how to sustain media coverage of SRHR, which emerged in March 2018, six months after we launched the weekly newspaper column. It is a challenge to be offering new, exciting and ‘wow’-content every week and keep the media interested in the issue., The problem occurred as our organisation was drumming up support for abortion law reform in Malawi through media advocacy. Issues included: How do we work with the media? How do we produce relevant media content and sustain audience interest during the abortion law reform process?

How did you overcome this problem?

By building a good relationship with the media outlets and by thorough planning, this was the solution to the problem. During our planning stage, we discovered that we could cover abortion from many perspectives. Some angles included stories of abortion survivors, the magnitude of unsafe abortion, the cost of unsafe abortion, culture and abortion, change of stances by clerics, human rights and public health perspectives of abortion, linking contraceptive shortages and abortion. The list went on and on. The solution also included addressing the skills gaps of writers or contributors by training them. One key skills gap was their failure to embed key messages in their articles. We addressed this by formulating messages to be included in the articles. The other was differences in the statistics used on abortion and maternal health. That was addressed by advising all writers to quote research findings disseminated by University of Malawi and Guttmacher Institute. For international data, all writers were advised to quote data from the World Health Organization.

What did you achieve by following the plan you put in place?

Through the media (and in other ways) we have been consistently advocating for abortion law reform in Malawi. This, along with the efforts of others who also supported the law reform, persuaded the Malawi government to draft the proposed Termination of Pregnancy Bill. We are now pushing for this Bill’s enactment.

What did you learn from this experience?

In a conservative society like Malawi opposition to abortion law reform is significant, so it is essential to use a phased approach to build up understanding and support for a change in the law.

In our media coverage, we initially looked at the challenges in a phased approach starting with the problem of the low rate of abstinence, which results in teen pregnancies, failure of youths to access condoms due to government policies (the ban of condoms in schools and colleges), and the scarcity of contraceptives in rural areas. Then we looked at the problem of resulting unwanted pregnancies in Malawi and how they end up in unsafe abortions. After that our media coverage moved on to the legal framework and the failure of restrictive law to stop abortions. We proceed in that manner and then moved on to getting media coverage on post-abortion care and even looked at religion and abortion. The phased approach has been working well for us.

What are your top tips for an organisation facing the same issue?

1. Have a strategy or plan

  • It is crucial to work out a plan or strategy on how you will work with the media.
  • The plan will answer questions such as:
    • Who is going to write articles or produce content for your organisation?
    • Will you do it on your own?
    • Will you need to hire someone to produce articles on your behalf?
    • Will you let journalists from mainstream media write stories after you brief them at press conferences or through press releases?
    • Will you use free spaces available in media outlets, or will you be buying space for your content?
    • Will you be using your social media platforms to highlight your activities? Will it be a combination of these strategies?

2. Plan Content

  • Plan content for the media campaign.
  • Have press or information kits.
  • If you are a media NGO, training those who will produce the content is essential.
  • As part of your planning, consider media deadlines. If you want an article to appear, for example, on 28 September on International Safe Abortion Day, submit it on 26th or 27th September. Some media outlets may even advise you to provide the material one week or even one month before the publication or broadcast.

3. Good relationships

There is a need to establish a working relationship with media outlets. Some of the editorial staff you need to know are:

  • the editor
  • the producer at radio and tv stations and
  • the reporters who handle content for your area of interest.

If you work on gender and SRHR issues, you should get to know journalists who cover human rights or health issues.

4. Ignore little mishaps

  • In your work with the media, there will be occasions when journalists may get what you consider valuable information at your event of from your press release, but still decide not to write a story. Do not lose your cool about that.
  • Celebrate that the journalists have obtained correct information they may use at their convenient time. If journalists have published or broadcast stories after attending your event or following the distribution of your press release, write, call or even WhatsApp to thank them for their support.
  • In some parts of the world, where organisations offer transport or meal per diems to journalists, note that media practitioners do not consider such per diems paid as mandatory motivators for them to write stories. Journalists look at the newsworthiness of the story when determining what to publish or broadcast. 

5. Press Release

  • Where feasible, write a press release and send it to media houses.
  • A press release should be written using an inverted pyramid. In this style, the most critical information should be at the top of the write-up and then more detail below that. Most journalists use the same format when writing their stories.
  • The first paragraph of your press release should be short and answer essential questions such as What? When? Why? How?
  • Send the press releases in separate e-mail messages to each media house / journalist instead of mass e-mailing to 12 addresses at once: if a journalist feels you have personally contacted them they are much more likely to cover your story than if they feel you have just sent out a general email to everyone
  • If you are organising a press conference, ensure there are no more than three people speaking at the conference. This is to minimise the chances of officials clashing each other, and too many messages Those speaking at the press conference should be knowledgeable about the subject matter.

6. Value audience feedback and use it to improve your advocacy.

Other related resources

Please also see the How to guides on:

  • How to use the media for law or policy change
  • How to transform social norms through radio and other media

Brian Ligomeka, Centre for Solutions Journalism, Malawi

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.

Centre for Solutions Journalism website