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Health research and the media – challenges in communication

Research centres such as think tanks might produce noteworthy findings on advancements in the health sector. Yet, what factors impede journalists to accurately report health research and support debate on health? A report by Robert Vincent, Senior HIV and AIDS adviser to PANOS London points out that, in Uganda, researchers are usually wary of the media misreporting their work. At the same time, such research might not be made readily available by health ministries, agencies and centres which would result in journalists looking for information elsewhere – increasing the chances of it being inaccurate. In other contexts, political pressure and direct intimidation can also discourage journalists from publicizing particular government health policies.

Previous studies have shown that an issue is given the spotlight in the media when it stirs debate and is considered interesting, noteworthy news. For instance, in the case of HIV and AIDS in the United States, film star Rock Hudson’s diagnosis broke the silence on the disease among the mainstream media; so did schoolboy Ryan White in 1985 and Magic Johnson’s case in 1991. Coverage of HIV and AIDS increased after these stories broke the news, which in turn translated into greater priority given to the disease in policy. A similar phenomenon happened in Uganda, where famous singers also gave the media a reason to pay attention to this issue.

This highlights the fact that “social indicators” and other research rarely determine the priority an issue is given in the media and in the public agenda. It is more likely that events which cause a great stir in society, like the ones above, will spark media interest.

The report uses data gathered for the Health Journalism Partnership, which includes a global survey of over 450 organizations that work with health media support; interviews in 16 countries; and four in depth case studies, such as discrimination against HIV / AIDS and the media in Jamaica. It found that media coverage of health issues in these countries has a tendency to be shallow and reactive, with little investigative depth. Coverage usually follows announcements of news drugs or policies by the government. Reporting is sensationalist and inaccurate, and while sometimes economic and political factors will be explored in conjunction with the story, this usually does not happen. There is monetary support from NGOs for health journalists, but it is generally limited or insufficient.

Another factor that impedes good health reporting is that many journalists lack journalism skills (ironically enough – this is most likely explained by poor tertiary education systems), and little understanding of science and health. Journalists also do not have the opportunity to further educate themselves on these issues, and as mentioned above, information is scarce and limited.

So how to promote a better relationship between health research and journalists? It is important for journalists to get support and training from health experts and colleagues who are well versed in these issues. Journalists must also learn how to make scientific language more understandable and available to a wider audience, often with a human interest angle. They also need to place issues in broader social, political and economic contexts. In turn, government health ministries must provide freer access to health information and health agencies and researchers should strengthen links with the media.