The Importance of Journalism to Public Health: 10 Years After SARS How Are We Doing?

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Risk communication in public health with Julie Leask

If a health scare manifested itself in the world and there were no journalists to cover the story, what would the impact on the public be?

That is a question that lingered with me throughout the start of the 2013 Ontario Public Health Convention (TOPHC) which began with a morning dedicated to improving public health communication. Opening up the conference was a series of linked keynote presentations from a risk communications researcher (Julie Leask); a former newspaper editor, journalism professor and social media advocate (Wayne MacPhail), and one of Canada’s leading health specialist reporters (Helen Branswell).

The Academic’s Perspective

Keynote speaker Julie Leask (pictured above) and her colleague Dr. Claire Hooker (a good friend of mine) have been looking at the ways journalists engage in risk communication with the public on matters of public health from immunization to SARS to understanding the health priorities of professionals. In 2010 they published a paper looking at how the media covers health topics and argued that the health professions need to be aware of how stories are made, communicated and to be an active partner with reporters if they are to have positive impact in moments of health scares.

“It’s too late when the crisis comes up” – Julie Leask speaking on the need for public health to get engaged with the public using social media

In a previous post I wrote about how journalism is the fourth estate of medicine and public health. Journalists are the storytellers that the public listen to and are charged with looking at a problem from many perspectives to develop that coherent narrative that speaks to their audience. These are qualities that most scientists and public health professionals don’t bring to their jobs, nor are they always expected to or even should. As such, journalists play an important role for this very reason.

Nonetheless, the health sector has an uneasy relationship with journalism. Health professionals – particularly researchers — poorly understand the world of journalists and sometimes view the profession with suspicion. Julie Leask and her colleagues have found this to be the case, but argue that it is no reason to shy away from engaging the public using the tools that are comfortable to journalists. She spoke to the invaluable role of specialist health journalists in acting not only as producers of high quality health content in the news, but also guardians against low quality content making into press. In speaking to her research, she pointed out that specialist health journalists help educate their peers and editors on health issues, which are often complex and require more than a passing understanding of context to communicate well, as key gatekeepers for quality in the health landscape.

The Editor’s Perspective

To this end, Wayne MacPhail, a former editor of the Hamilton Spectator,  argued that public health has a near ethical imperative (my choice of term) to be in the social media space to not only promote good health, but counter and challenge myths and misinformation. This isn’t some naive pronouncement that we’ll eliminate the snake oil sales or quackery that proliferates in the public sphere and media, but rather a simple observation that we have no chance of making impact if we are not even engaged in the space at all.

Like Leask, MacPhail says that it’s too late to engage the public when a health crisis comes up and that public health needs to be in the conversation stream before that happens.

The Reporter’s Perspective

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Reporting through SARS to today: Helen Branswell

Helen Branswell, a reporter from The Canadian Press, rounded out the panel and spoke frankly about the dwindling resources and rapidly changing landscape in journalism. She was on the front lines of reporting the 2003 SARS outbreak and showed a picture taken during that time of an empty newsroom and remarked how that the scene is the same now only for different reasons (limited budgets due to decreased ad revenue and the related shift to digital information on the web being two such reasons, among others).

Branswell paints a bleak picture of the present and future in many areas of health journalism. Stories are increasingly being covered by general reporters who may treat the story the same as they would a traffic incident, political story, or crime; journalists who are unlikely to know the context and details that are critical to communicating the nuances present in health matters. Interns are replacing some full time or veteran reporters in the newsroom and there are only a handful of specialists in practice.

Pressures from time, budget and competing interests in the newsroom are all contributing to an environment where quality health reporting is threatened.

What Next?

I asked the panel what they thought public health should do to ensure that the healthy stories are reported well and there was little answers. Helen Branswell said, truthfully and somewhat cheekily: “buy newspapers”. She reminded us that we should be paying for the quality content and supporting good journalism in practice if we want it to survive, which is hard to argue against.

But that alone will not do all the work needed to preserve good journalism. I spoke to another conference attendee, a formally trained journalist who is now working with a research firm, about the ways in which journalists have helped other organizations craft their messages and engaging the public citing the Calgary Police Service’s social media team as an example. This pointed to ways in which journalists can make a difference in matters of public health and social services.

Yet, what about investigative journalism? What about the potential conflicts that come from being paid to report on issues that might be critical of the organization who does the paying (e.g., Ministries of Health, Departments of Public Health, Universities and colleges etc..)? This model doesn’t solve that, but it is at least another option.

Yet, the examples from public health taking this challenge of working with journalists up are few. Many still believe that social media is another means of broadcasting, which misses the mark. Others still view social media, journalism, engaging with the public through the media, with suspicion on the grounds that much of the work out there is not evidence based.

But what evidence did we have when SARS hit us 10 years ago? We had lots of epidemiological data on infectious disease, but that was only part of the story. Many of the leading health scientists were adapting their models, creating new ones and only after the disease left did we really have a full sense of what happened. We learned as we went.

This is what social media is all about, too. The lessons from major health events — disasters, outbreaks, and pandemics — parallel social media. It is innovation space at its clearest and thus there is an imperative to view it as innovation space with the tools and lenses that best support movement within complex adaptive system. From a communications standpoint, social media and the tools of modern journalism (and the style of communication they employ) are one thing to consider. Developmental design and evaluation are also among these tools combined with systems thinking.

Linear thinking and action will not work in a complex system and as this panel pointed out, there is much reason to be concerned if we are not prepared to communicate and support those that communicate well in such times when — not if — they come back.

Ten years after SARS how better off are we? And if we are better, how are we communicating that to the public?

2 Comments on “The Importance of Journalism to Public Health: 10 Years After SARS How Are We Doing?

  1. Pingback: What do sexually-transmitted infections and H7N9 have in common? - Blog Central, Science-ish - Macleans.ca

  2. Pingback: Chat 123 Summary: How do social media influence health care journalism? | Colleen Young

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