Healing journalism, one beat at a time

If journalism was a human being, would that person be male or female? What’s the individual’s contribution to society? What shape is she or he in? Overweight or malnourished? Blood pressure up? Diabetes? Fitness status?

It depends on which family member you’re talking about. In the “beat” specialisations in journalism, there are diverse siblings like economics journalism, political journalism, sports journalism, etc.

But if we’re talking about health journalism, we’re frequently focusing on a creature in need of serious nourishment and serious exercise. Here’s a diagnosis of the generally low volume and weak quality of health journalism in our part of the world:

1. A narrow news frame:
The South African Protection of Information Bill is an easy story because it’s in-your-face relevant to corruption, political power and press freedom — i.e. to our obvious news-frames.

But what about its potential impact on health information in the public domain? The fact is that this bill that also threatens South Africans’ right to health care services (SA Constitution section 27.1), because it could limit the information which citizens need to protect this right.

News frames need to expand to encompass such stories. And they also need to widen beyond an events-coverage focus which neglects things that do not add up to a defined news occurrence.

For example, who has a summer cold, and how’s it spreading? The ban on cigarette advertising — any correlation with changing rates of smoking? Amongst whom? No-one’s telling us stories like this.

Do schools nowadays still check kids for flat feet, and to what effect? What exist for inoculations for learners? It’s not in the media.

So it is that we hear when life-threatening developments reach a peak, like cholera in Haiti, but we are left ill-informed about the everyday stuff of life. Especially, we don’t know about trends.

The point is that existing narrow news frames are needlessly confining the health journalism ‘patient’ to bed. Meantime, there’s a hugely interesting world out there, calling in vain for media attention.

2. Limited creative capacity for story-telling:

Too many journalists lack the know-how to turn complex, potentially boring, information into compelling stories. Data-visualisation on the web is a dynamic new form of story-telling in journalism, and something of huge relevance to deep and rich health journalism. But hardly any health journalists in Africa have these skills.

Capacity for creative story-telling is also a challenge for offline media, notably as regards HIV-Aids stories. Any editor will tell you that an HIV-Aids headline on the front page means significantly fewer sales. The result is that the story is relegated to a non-agenda-setting place in the paper, or even to the spike.

But if we agree that this is a top impact issue in terms of quality of life, the economy, social policies, science, gender relations, social fabric, etc. etc., then it’s not enough to retreat in the face of reader recalcitrance.

In short, we can’t afford to resign ourselves to limited creative capacity in health journalism.

3. Shortage of subject-knowledge:

Much that passes for health journalism is no more than regurgitated press releases, and carried without critical scrutiny or independent voice.

Examples are silly stories about the purported sex habits of South Africans, the percentage of the population proclaimed to be obese, and forthcoming wonder breakthroughs in drugs. But typically these tales come from vested interest companies using research that is typically undisclosed or of highly dubious statistical provenance.

In directly proportionate short-supply to the volume is unverified rubbish is reporters’ expertise in the evaluation protocols of health journalism. Even in the USA, along the same spectrum of reporter ignorance, there is a serious lack of expertise in health law, policy, economics, science and ethics.

In summary, health journalism suffers from: (1) a narrow news frame, (2) limited capacity for creative story-telling, and (3) a shortage of topic expertise.

There’s no magic drug to treat these afflictions, but a long-term treatment regime can help.

One essential intervention is research and training. That’s the context of an announcement last week of a R13,5m sponsorship to Rhodes University to create the Discovery Centre for Health Journalism.

The Centre, which will enjoy full academic freedom, will be part of the School of Journalism and Media Studies, where I work. Next year, it kicks off a specialised Honours programme with six bursaries a year. Besides for preparing people to enter health journalism, the Centre will also host an annual symposium for working health journalists and stakeholders.

Who cares about the wellness of health journalism? Not surprisingly, Discovery Health CEO Johnny Broomberg does. He points out that the health sector (public and private combined) is, amongst other things, the biggest industry in the world.

It is certainly a massive, often untold, economic story within the remit of health journalism. That, and the rest of the entire range of the beat, means a mass of public information and communication that all has huge potential impact.

That’s why we can say, for example, that medical matters are also media matters— something that underlines why, therefore, the media matters.

In short, health journalism concerns the health of everyone; raising its performance is of universal interest.

Going further, given that the ailments of health journalism are not unique to this particular journalistic beat, improvements here could be very profitably copied by its siblings.

Wouldn’t it be grand if health journalism became the healthiest trend-setter for the whole family of journalism?

*This column is made possible by support from fesmedia Africa, the Media Project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa, www.fesmedia.org. The views expressed in it are those of the author.

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