The Global Health Reflections series brings together opinion pieces, commentaries, and summaries of major issues related to global health. It is informed by the research and activities of UNU-IIGH fellows and our partners.
by Emma Rhule
On June 24th, the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting and Development (AIDB) hosted a webinar on ‘Health Journalism: A dialogue with broadcasters’ that sought to investigate the constraints of informative health reporting in the media and opportunities for improvement. This article reflects the author’s panel contribution.
The United Nations University International Institute for Global Health is the UN’s health think tank. We are a team of health experts whose role sits at the intersection of evidence generation and policy translation. As such, we have multiple audiences we need to engage with, ranging from policy makers and researchers to civil society and members of the ‘general’ public. With such a diverse range of stakeholders, we need to tailor our messages and our communications approaches.
Straddling the worlds of academia and policy, our work is driven by curiosity, complexity, and a desire to see real improvements in health for all. By its very nature, the nuances of that work rarely make for a crisp and clear headline or a ‘sexy’ soundbite. For instance, “500 hundred children didn’t die today!” is not a story. But what if those children didn’t die because they were vaccinated? Vaccines saves an estimated 2-3 million children per year, an important story that needs to shared, especially in a time of rising anti-vaccination sentiment. Vaccination programmes are founded on a bedrock of strong scientific evidence, policy development and implementation, and health communication. If any one of those components break down, so do vaccines’ lifesaving potential.
Journalists who are trained in health reporting have a powerful role to play as brokers between health experts and the general public. They can be key in translating ‘science speak’ but to do so, it’s imperative that they understand the languages on both sides of the conversation. That understanding is about more than just the vocabulary. It also requires familiarity with the specific context, including social and cultural practices and value systems, so that those words resonate with meaning.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been an excellent example of how good journalism and media reporting can make a difference to people’s lives. Before the pandemic, I never would’ve imagined having a casual conversation about ‘R-rates’, ‘super spreaders’ or ‘flattening the curve’. Today, those terms are familiar to the lay public, thanks to the clear and comprehensible way they have been communicated by the media.
For many of us, policy making is something abstract that happens in the background of our lives; something that governments do and researchers contribute to that we rarely need to think about. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the policy process into our homes – and for many, kept us in them – and onto our screens. As such, we’ve seen people debate policies, question the underlying rationale, and make decisions about how they’re going to behave, e.g. deciding about how closely they’re going to follow policy guidelines.
Furthermore, the internet has made us globally connected. It’s no longer just what local media outlets share or what local politicians say that is guiding people’s actions. We can see the policies and decisions of other countries across the world. When the information communicated is unclear, doesn’t seem to be supported by the evidence shared in other countries, or conflicts with expert information, we see people questioning the actions that we’re asking them to take and even actively protesting them; the outcomes of which can be deadly.
Social media has played an influential role in this and other recent health emergencies. The WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has declared the COVID-19 infodemic to be “just as dangerous” as the virus itself. The way misinformation has been able to proliferate has had, and will continue to have, deadly consequences. But we shouldn’t be surprised that people are looking for sources of information in a wide range of places. In times of uncertainty, it is common to go through processes of sense-making, and information voids create space for conspiracy theories to flourish. It is our role as health experts to work with journalists to populate that void with accurate and timely information.
The health reporting toolkit is varied. Hard science and hard journalism, the use of facts and figures presented through infographics and graphs, have been an important way to convey some of the information relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from presenting complex information in a way that is easy to understand, there is a hope that in presenting ‘hard facts’ the information is viewed objective, and thus easier to trust.
In public health, ‘social determinants’ – economic stability, health care, education, neighbourhood and environment, and social and community context – are a key component of good health for all. It’s very difficult to have conversations about social determinants of health; they differ between contexts and as such, their relative importance is variable. This is particularly challenging from a policy influencing perspective because the responsibility for these different, but interacting, factors sits with different government ministries.
This is where I believe that there is a key role for ‘soft’ journalism in the form of shared personal stories can help paint a more relatable picture on how all these discrete puzzle pieces are put together. Hard journalism accompanied by illustrative anecdotes can show how these social determinants interact with the hard science of – in this instance, the SARS-CoV-2 virus – and are a key component in understanding its impact on people.
The narrative power of journalism can not only illuminate inequity and the role of social determinants through telling stories, giving it names and faces to make the issues relatable. Consequently, increased awareness can lead to people push policy and decision makers to make changes. For instance, in my own country, the UK, non-white healthcare workers have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 infections. One study analysing the deaths of 119 NHS staff found that 64% per cent individuals known to have died in the pandemic were from an ethnic minority background, despite making up only 20 % of NHS staff. Migrant workers in the non-NHS health workforce have also suffered alarming high death rates, notably from the Philippines. A number of factors are at play including an increased likelihood of working in roles that have close contact with patients and unequal power dynamics which lead to individuals feeling less able to speak out about the lack of personal protective equipment or unsafe working practices.
As health experts, we know that we have a role to play in learning how to communicate better with our audiences. From personal experience, I know that having partners on that journey from the media side is key.
The full recording of the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting and Development webinar on Science and Health reporting is now available on Facebook.