Media & Meningitis

Dr. Marquita Smith Equips Ghanaians to Report on Community Issues

By Valerie McArthur '18
9/27/2018 10:43:00 PM

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Dr. Marquita Smith has elephant figurines from around the world on display in every nook and cranny of her office, complete with elephant hooks on her coat rack and an elephant painting hung haphazardly over her desk. Smith can look at each one and tell its story, listing the places and people she got them from. One elephant figurine she recently purchased in West Africa.

Smith, chair of the division of communication and fine arts and associate professor of journalism, spent a year in Accra, Ghana, as a 2016-2017 Fulbright U.S. Scholar, teaching graduate students at the University of Ghana while researching media attitudes toward women’s health. 

Smith’s grant for the mass communications, journalism and broadcasting teaching/research position in Ghana is only given to one recipient each year. Smith is one out of four current JBU professors that have received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar fellowship.

“I got my doctorate to become a better professor and help students, and when I was applying for grad school I told them that I’d like to do a Fulbright,” Smith said. 

“I’ve been passionate about media development since 2005,” Smith said, explaining an interest  sparked from six months spent in Liberia as part of the press corps, covering the election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female head of state in Africa. While there, Smith was regularly featured on radio shows and in various media outlets. 

But Smith was somewhat disheartened with this turn of events. “I thought, ‘How could I be on the radio shows when there are people who live here who should be able to have some input into these kinds of conversations?’” 

The lack of a Liberian news presence spurred Smith to empower local journalists to take charge of their own national narrative. Since then, she has worked extensively in Liberia, Nigeria and Ghana to train and develop media professionals, but never in an academic setting.

Her teaching/research project, titled “Courageous Communication: Creating Journalism that Matters,” sought to cultivate media development in multiple ways. Through her Fulbright grant, Smith taught media and public opinion, visual communication, and co-taught news writing and reporting her first semester, along with media ethics and health communication during her second semester. 

Teaching graduate-level courses at the University of Ghana, Legon involved less practical training and more discussion of the underlying communication theories. 

“Coming from my undergraduate students here [at JBU], I was a bit intimidated,” Smith said. “The classes [in Ghana] are much longer, and theory is a lot more about understanding the research components than it is actually doing them. That was an adjustment in terms of my teaching style.”

Smith anticipated limitations as she prepared for her teaching experience.  She learned of the courses she would teach just days prior to the start of classes. She traveled with her Pico projector, a portable device used to project content from a computer, tablet or a mobile phone onto a wall or a surface, because she knew technology might be limited. She also chose texts that were available in PDF format, enabling her to make copies to lower the costs for her students. Textbooks were not really an option, she said. 

Not being immersed in Ghanaian news and pop culture on a regular basis created challenges for Smith. Her students were very aware of news happening around the world. 

“I had to put things into appropriate context and reference local news,” Smith said of the examples she would use to explain concepts in her media ethics class. “It takes extra effort — learning what drives media in Ghana. I had to learn what I don’t know and what they knew. I had to encourage them to share and meet them where they were.”

Not only was Smith teaching graduate students the theory behind media practices, but she was also conducting research into how media affects people’s attitudes and beliefs, with particular emphasis on women’s health. 

To collect the relevant data, Smith, with the help of her health communication students, distributed over 200 paper surveys that are now stored in her JBU office in several bursting manila folders. These surveys asked media professionals from Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria how they viewed their role and if they were interested in or valued covering women’s health.

Smith paired the media professionals’ self-assessments with an analysis of Ghanaian media content. She also facilitated focus groups in a rural Ghanaian village to understand how women learn about health practices and self-diagnose. 

While Smith has yet to dive into the data from her surveys or her focus groups, initial findings suggest that a 2-3 minute video broadcast sponsored by a nearby missions outpost is the main form of health education for many women in rural communities. 

From her research, Smith co-wrote an article alongside colleague Dr. Gilbert K. M. Tietaah, a lecturer at the University of Ghana, in the Athens Journal of Health in December 2017, titled “Online Media Surveillance: Coverage of Meningitis Out-breaks in Ghana.” Smith and Tietaah explored the nature of reporting on the meningitis outbreaks in Ghana by two online media outlets, analyzing the level of prominence, the news frames, sources and surveillance function performed by the media. 

Using 60 news articles published between Dec. 1, 2015 and March 31, 2016, Smith and Tietaah found that the health crisis was not prominently displayed online and mostly featured government representatives and health officials. The media did not encourage affected communities or residents to seek medical treatment and did not alert the public properly to the severity of the meningitis outbreak.

Ultimately the research led to Smith and Tietaah’s finding that journalists interested in reporting health issues needed more training. 

Smith returned to JBU in Fall 2017, balancing her undergraduate teaching, her administrative role as head of the communication department and her role as coordinator of diversity relations, while still working on a few writing projects, including her research in Ghana.

Her time as a Fulbright Scholar has also enhanced her JBU undergraduate classes where Smith is including more research projects and more theory, as well as providing more real-world assignments that align Smith’s research projects and student assignments.

 Smith said coming back to the fast pace of life in the U.S. was overwhelming.

“I want to hold onto the emphasis on fellowship that I had in Ghana,” Smith said. “The train is running away, but I don’t have to chase it. I don’t have to work every night, and I’m learning to understand that that’s okay.” 

While there were challenges, Smith said her time in Ghana was rewarding.

“I got Ancestry DNA tested back in December, and I’m 41 percent from Ghana/Ivory Coast,” Smith said. “The results kind of confirmed God’s calling for me to work in that area… For me, there’s a spiritual connection.” 

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