February 15, 2011 Liz Borkowski, MPH 2Comment

The Kaiser Family Foundation has just released a report on the future of global health journalism, and it’s not surprising to hear that the traditional model of covering global health is crumbling. KFF commissioned journalists Nellie Bristol and John Donnelly to conduct this research, and their interviews with 51 stakeholders found that challenges abound. Budget pressures on mainstream news media have reduced the number of reporters on this beat and restrained their ability to travel. Freelancers struggle to find receptive outlets for their stories and stretch paltry story payments to cover travel costs. Existing coverage tends to focus on infectious-disease outbreaks and other disaster-related health issues, and there’s often little space left for big-picture policy issues like U.S. government efforts to improve global health.

There are bright spots in this bleak picture, and Bristol and Donnelly highlight several outlets – The Economist, The New Yorker, The Financial Times, The Globe and Mail, The Seattle Times, and the Boston Globe – that still devote substantial resources to global-health issues. (Both the Seattle Times and the Boston Globe come at global health from local angles – Seattle is home to the Gates Foundation headquarters, and Boston to lots of medical research.) They also give examples of mainstream news media that are using outside funding to support in-depth global-health coverage; the Gates Foundation is probably the biggest name in this area, having funded PBS NewsHour, Public Radio International’s The World, NPR, The Guardian and ABC News.

I realized as I was writing this post that the report doesn’t seem to contain a definition of “global health journalism”; a lot of the report’s examples center on diseases (HIV/AIDS being the most prominent), but I would imagine that topics like hunger and poverty would also be relevant.

A changing world for NGOs
Advocacy organizations that address global health face both challenges and opportunities in this changing media landscape. When NGOs try to place stories about their issues, they find it increasingly difficult to get an editor who’ll bite. Of all the depressing examples Bristol and Donnelly provide, I found this one especially sad:

Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, author of global health books, and former global health reporter at Newsday, recounted her frustration in trying to publish various research findings. “I’m waving my damn Pulitzer Prize at these editors, and I still can’t get op-eds published,” she said.

She described one instance in writing an op-ed with a U.S. Navy captain, a guest fellow at the Council, which looked at hurricane forecasts for the Caribbean, and what it would mean if a category 3 hurricane hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti as it recovered from the January 2010 earthquake. They shopped it to The New York Times, The Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and The Los Angeles Times. None was interested. So they placed it on The Huffington Post blog, Garrett said.

I’m sure NGOs would much rather be able to see their op-eds and research featured in the pages of the New York Times, but blogs do make a good fall-back option. The report notes that some organizations launch blogs as a way to get their information out to the public directly, without having to plead for scarce space in a newspaper or on a TV show. Deirdre Shesgreen, former editor of the Center for Global Health Policy’s Science Speaks blog, told Bristol and Donnelly:

There are fewer reporters covering these issues. It’s also hard to get op-eds placed. We have tried a million places with an op-ed sometimes, and then we can post it to [our] blog just to get it published. It became our own way of reporting something and getting it published.

Then there’s this example from the Center for Global Development:

Center for Global Development, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, has developed an active blog on global health issues. “It makes us less reliant on the news for every single product,” said Ben Edwards, the center’s media relations coordinator, who since the interview has become a press officer at the U.S. Agency for International Development. The group also builds an audience through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. “Re-tweeting” findings for a report, or other news, is proving to be an effective tool, Edwards said, adding, “That’s where you really get the biggest impact because if you have a thousand followers and 10 people re-tweet something you’re sending and they each have a thousand followers, all of a sudden you’ve reached 11,000 people instead of just 1,000.” A home run for Edwards: having a message re-tweeted by someone with a large following.

All of the content these groups put out there sometimes ends up in the hands of journalists, and can be a blessing for those who are pressed for time or money to investigate the issues the NGOs explore. How journalists use that material varies, though. Bureau for International Reporting Director Kira Kay raised concerns about news outlets that simply run NGO-produced pieces instead of spending money for their own coverage. Respondents from PBS NewsHour noted that material from outside sources can be great for keeping up with news and identifying spokespeople to interview, but said they don’t air material produced by outside groups. Bay described her concerns to Bristol and Donnelly:

“NGOs do provide good information to the public on distant places and crises, and quite often also compelling storytelling that makes such issues human and understandable,” Kay wrote in an email. “But that the work is ultimately produced from an advocacy perspective, not one that has as its primary goal to uncover facts–to look at the political underpinnings of a crisis for example, or raise concerns that might exist about the way such humanitarian efforts are carried out. I fear that the blurring of this line not only hurts the public but could also potentially hurt the NGOs as the public learns less about the whole of an issue, including potential political solutions, and only gets absorbed into the story of a momentary crisis–one they’ll move along from thinking about after they’ve made their donation.”

The report poses several questions to consider about the future of global-health journalism, and one of them is: “If advocacy organizations maintain or even increase provision of information and images to the media, how might this affect journalistic integrity, especially if financial constraints facing news organizations remain?”

What about blogs?
I’m curious about the approach the report took to the not-so-mainstream media, and blogs in particular. The authors mention several blogs affiliated with mainstream news sources, and highlights advocacy groups using blogs to get the word out about their work and issues in an era when news organizations as a whole are devoting fewer resources to global health. But what about all the blogs (and other non-traditional types of media) that fall somewhere in between? Was the decision to focus on more mainstream news sources a matter of prioritizing given limited resources, or did blogs never come up in the conversations about research design?

I suppose the ideal for global-health reporting includes not just a skilled journalist, but time on the ground (in whatever places are relevant to the story) and a thoughtful editor. While the internet has made it easier than before to communicate with sources located far from a reporter’s home base, in-person contact and eyewitness views of a situation can bring an extra level of detail and accuracy to stories – which is presumably why news organizations have traditionally supported far-flung news bureaus and funded reporter travel.

As a news consumer, I do feel pretty confident about the accuracy and thoroughness of, say, an NPR story because I trust NPR to hire excellent reporters and edit their work appropriately. And whether or not the New Yorker actually has the best fact-checking system in the business, I’ve never seen any other publication’s fact-checking operations described at such length (for instance, see John McPhee, Virginia Heffernan, and last week’s Fresh Air interview with Lawrence Wright about fact-checking his recent Church of Scientology story). Having a piece aired or published by a trusted news organization confers automatic credibility.

Blog posts rarely get the kind of editorial scrutiny we expect from respected news sources, and most bloggers have limited travel opportunities. (Of course, some bloggers are also reporters, so there isn’t a bright-line distinction here.) But the best bloggers often do have expertise on a particular topic and an ability to provide context and analysis that complement the stories published by mainstream news organizations. I know my own blogging output would plummet if I couldn’t rely on stories from these news organizations, but a lot of blogging also uses reports from government agencies or UN organizations that most people wouldn’t see otherwise.

If traditional, mainstream news organizations keep reducing resources for global-health coverage, we’ll have lost something important. Blogs can’t and shouldn’t aim to fully replace the work of respected and well-resourced news outlets. But they do contribute useful new elements that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

2 thoughts on “Global Health Journalism in Flux

  1. Thanks, Liz, for pointing out the almost-total absence of blogs from this report. I was a global-health newspaper reporter, am now a blogger who writes about global health for a very high-traffic site, and I don’t see myself in this report at all. There *is* a middle ground between the former pulpit of getting your stuff covered by the very large newspapers, and the current one of starting a blog at your NGO because the reporters you used to talk to aren’t there any more — and that’s to try looking outside the blinkered NY-DC-Boston axis for the people who did cover public health in the mainstream media, and continue to do so in new media. I’m disappointed the report didn’t undertake this, and honestly take it more as a statement of internal old-media prejudices than a correct assessment of the situation today.

  2. Maryn, your situation also points out that even though newspapers may be laying off reporters, many of these reporters will still be putting their skills to use in other venues. And while bloggers may not get the automatic credibility that comes from being associated with a major news organization, they earn their readers’ trust by consistently putting out high-quality work.

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