I didn’t grow up thinking that I’d ever be a health journalist. Even today, I don’t think of myself as one. But after more than 16 years as a hack, I have newfound respect for those women and men who cover the health beat. For one, the accomplished health journalists that I’ve met seem to have fewer regrets and aren’t as burnt out as the rest of us may be.
I realized too that unlike many beats, the job requires skill and commitment just to master the basics.
Skill, because health and development journalism requires deep domain knowledge and an ability to dredge up good data, which both require several years of experience. Commitment, because there’s little of the glamour that’s associated with other beats such as politics, crime, sports and even business. And yet, there’s arguably no more important beat than the health journalism beat.
Seven reasons to do public health journalism
Among the relatively new media outlets in the United States, Vox stands out with its focus on health journalism and explainers. The website’s senior health correspondent, Julia Belluz, listed three reasons to do public health journalism in a 2015 article, which is worth revisiting.
One, she said, people tend to pay attention to what the media is reporting when it comes to health. “People barely follow their doctor’s prescriptions, yet they will bet their health and dollars on whatever miracle cure is being promoted in the media,” she wrote.
Second, good health journalism helps inform government policies. Even with experts testifying on public health issues before government committees, Belluz said, “Decisionmakers…rely on journalists to tell them what’s new and important in the world of medicine and health research.”
Additionally, good public health journalism helps keep the government accountable. Here’s Belluz again: “Health care is a business… [and] needs to be kept accountable. The fourth estate…is not only a pillar of a functioning democracy; it’s a pillar of public health.”
A fourth reason why it’s important for journalists to track public health — especially relevant to emerging economies like India — is that public health helps indicate how well (or badly) a government is serving its citizens.
“Good overall public health is a condition of being a developed society,” Vinod K. Jose, who edits Indian magazine The Caravan, said. “Fix public health and you will have fixed everything that is holding India back.” It stands to reason then that good public health journalism helps inform all stakeholders — the administration and citizenry — of where we’re at, and what we must do to get there.
A fifth reason to focus on public health journalism is that it feels good. So much of journalism today is devoid of impact. I know this from personal experience. I worked in television news for 12 years, where we were quick to claim credit for policy impacts or even government statements without a clear correlation. Even when our reporting did have an impact it was difficult to describe in terms of cause and effect because of a chorus of voices from TV, newspapers, opposition parties, advocacies, NGOs, etc. That isn’t a problem with dedicated public health journalism. Because there aren’t too many voices publishing quality stuff, cause and effect is more clearly established.
Six, it is good for your brand. If publishers invest in groundbreaking public health journalism, it gives the company’s brand a boost. This is critical because a great brand is essential to attract the best talent and partnerships.
Seven, producing good health journalism could help news organizations — especially digital ones — build up their business side. There is arguably lots of potential for media outlets to bring in cash by running native advertising for clients like health groups or even government agencies. Native advertising works best with good brands and good journalism and when there is a clearly visible separation between editorial and business.
So if all’s good, why don’t we have enough health journalists? I can think of at least six reasons. I’m willing to bet that most of these reasons are relevant in the non-U.S., non-EU world. It is certainly my belief that these are relevant for India.
First, it’s not taught in journalism schools. Students in j-schools across India can often opt to specialize in financial journalism or sports. But one rarely finds health journalism offered as a seminar, let alone a lecture series.
It also takes years to get good at it. Unlike many other beats, health journalism is a highly technical one. Sure, it’s not brain surgery, but often journalists have to learn to interpret data sets and journal articles on their own and on the job.
There’s very little knowledge transfer. If you’re a political journalist and you spend six months being a regular at press conferences and party offices, you end up knowing pretty much 90 percent of all the people you need to know. Because of the high number of journalists working the political beat, it’s easier for a rookie to make friends, thus enabling informal knowledge transfer.
It’s not a prized beat. The political beat can give a journalist attention-grabbing headlines, and a sports journalist comes off as cool (I was asked to sign autographs a few times when out covering cricket). And health journalism is unfortunately seen as a ‘soft beat,’ which is weird because it takes hard skill to cover it well. There’s even a gender skew — many health journalists in India are women. This is, of course, as much a challenge as an opportunity because there is room for new journalists to grow and shine.
It’s also not a priority for editors and publishers, for many of the reasons described above. Political journalism, which can be dull work, is nevertheless accorded privileges no other beats get. And lifestyle journalism often brings in the money. The health beat is often neither here nor there.
It doesn’t win awards. India’s most prestigious journalism award is the Ramnath Goenka award. It gives out prizes for environmental and sports reporting, but none for health journalism. To be sure, there has been a health and wellness category in the Red Ink awards, but the more awards there are, the more editors and publishers will encourage health journalism.
We need a community of health journalists
If health journalists were part of a community, would it make a difference to them? And would others in the ecosystem around health journalism find it useful? I believe the answer to both those questions is ‘yes’ and have started work on building such a community online and offline with the help of a few key journalists in India.
We think the community will bring people together in five ways.
The community’s website will be a window to resources and information that are usually hard to come by. There will be lists of reliable websites and data sources; of credible experts that can be consulted for stories; and of reporters who can be commissioned to do health stories.
We also plan to create a Facebook group that will exist primarily to sustain human-to-human interaction. The idea is, if a rookie reporter is looking to do a health story and has little idea as to where to get started, someone within the community will nudge them along with a suggestion or two.
A quarterly newsletter can be sent to update members on what’s going on within the group, new members and so on. It will be a showcase for great work within the public health journalism niche.
The website will also function as a gateway to opportunities related to health journalism, such as job postings, fellowships, grants, etc.
Events: we will regularly get together, both informally and formally for training, knowledge sharing and fun.
The key thing to note here is that this community is open to everyone with an interest or stake in public health. We’re always looking for suggestions. And most of all, we’re looking for fellow health journalists to lend their time and energy to run this community with us, no matter where they’re based.
H.R. Venkatesh has more than 15 years of experience as a journalist across roles in reporting, editing and anchoring. He is a former fellow at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism and the founder of NetaData, an Indian political news site. Learn more about his work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Wall Boat.