As a medical journal editor, I don’t measure my success by the amount of general press coverage the articles I shepherd to publication receive. I long ago accepted that the priorities of academic publishing rarely mesh with those of the media.
In fact, media coverage of content can be a medical editor’s nightmare, such as a recent instance covered by the ABC’s Media Watch, when an article discussing management options for a child with severe obesity that had been carefully vetted with peer review, thoughtfully revised by the authors and scrupulously edited in-house — all over a period of months — was wildly sensationalised, misused and misquoted by the media.
Items from the MJA generally hit the news within the first couple of days of publication. Despite my mixed feelings, I kept an eye out last week for reports about the articles in our latest issue, a theme issue dedicated to Indigenous health.
For the MJA editors, working on the yearly Indigenous health theme issue has been quite a journey. Early on, we realised that missing from the research, program initiatives, policy critiques and opinion pieces that crossed our desks were the ideas and narratives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves. We began to involve more experts who were Indigenous in our review process and to encourage Indigenous researchers and authors to submit articles for the issue.
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In 2004, the MJA initiated an essay competition, asking for submissions from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people who were working or studying in a health-related field. Slowly but surely, the annual Indigenous health issue is becoming a forum for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to speak for themselves on matters affecting their health. The response from those we have asked to contribute has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, and the resulting content has been increasingly enriched.
We publish 23 issues per year but, if you were inclined to judge a publication’s importance by the size of the problem it addresses, you could argue that the Indigenous health issue is our most important.
Obviously the general media don’t agree: in my search last week I found a smattering of reports regurgitating our press releases on the link between “caring for country” and health, and a single item relating to research into the availability of healthy food in Indigenous communities.
It could have been worse. In previous years I’ve seen articles on alcohol and cannabis use and violence picked up, while evaluations of successful programs in maternal and child health were ignored. And it seems anything addressing inequality or racism in health care or health policy is just too confronting to package up for general consumption.
Why is media coverage of our Indigenous health issue potentially so important? Surely medical journal editors and our general media counterparts have some things in common, such as a desire, when we see a problem, to keep bringing it to the attention of those who have the power to make changes; a duty to document activities that can actually make a difference; and a passion to bring to the fore important voices that might otherwise be ignored.
As Melissa Sweet outlined at Croakey last week, there were a number of articles in our recent Indigenous health issue that deserve the attention of policy-makers, the media and the community. Many of the excellent contributions are straightforward epidemiological papers or research reports that deserve serious analysis and discussion.