How does Australian TV cover the health issues of developing countries? And why does this matter? Read on…

Michelle Imison writes:

Despite rumours about the demise of traditional media, TV news and current affairs are still influential in shaping our social and political agenda for health. Of course, most of the stories they feature are domestic ones – but TV also brings us news about health in the developing world.

Our research, published today in the journal PLoS ONE, set out to discover what kind of picture such coverage provides Australian viewers.

In this task, we’ve been fortunate to have access to the TV database of the Australian Health News Research Collaboration (AHNRC), based in the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney. Since May 2005, it’s archived all the health-related, free-to-air Sydney TV news, current affairs and ‘infotainment’ items about health: 24 055 of them as of October 1 this year. (More information on the items we include/exclude, how they’re categorised and an overview of the database’s contents is available here.)

One of our sub-categories concerns health in developing countries; there were 923 stories across the four-and-a-half years to December 2009. Within this sample we examined the regions and nations stories were about, how often particular diseases and health conditions were mentioned and the presence or absence of an ‘Australian angle’.

The literature on media coverage of developing nations shows that its scope and context tend to be quite limited and that nations’ domestic perspectives reign supreme in their own mass-media reporting. We speculated that these observations would also hold true for Australian reporting of health news.

So, what did we find?

First, that a small number of nations in each region dominated Australian TV coverage of health in developing countries – and that some regions (such as Latin America and the Caribbean) are almost entirely absent.

The stories attracting the greatest media attention are usually those that directly involve, or talk about a risk to, Australians. This is broadly in line with previous research on patterns of general news, which has found that cultural proximity and political importance are strong predictors of coverage.

Second, the reportage broadly fits with a focus on what’s been described as ‘disease, disaster and despair’.

The single largest general category of health and illness news was communicable diseases; the kinds of infections, like variant influenzas, that originate in the developing world and threaten Australia, were especially prominent.

However even though non-communicable diseases and their associated risk factors are increasingly prevalent in developing nations, they were nearly invisible in Australian TV coverage.

Third, just under half of the stories had an explicit Australian focus – such as Australians facing health-related risk in the developing world, or people coming to Australia from developing countries for medical care.

All interesting, but why does this matter? We think there are a couple of important implications.

For starters, Australia’s overseas aid budget is set to double over the next five years – and the first independent public review since 1996 of its efficiency and effectiveness was announced just last week. Health is a major focus of the aid programme.

The patterns of coverage demonstrated in our survey are unlikely to help build a constituency in Australia – alongside activities like emergency relief and infectious disease control – for the kind of less visible work central to longer-term development: improving health-related infrastructure, public health law reform, enhancing health workforce capacity and the like.

For non-government organisations, too, a short-term focus in health news has consequences for the way they publicise their activities and raise funds; it may make finding a balance between crises and enduring issues more difficult.

And finally, an overview like this provides a basis in evidence from which media producers and consumers can consider current Australian media coverage of the developing world, and how well it serves our needs for both priority information and deeper understanding.

• Michelle Imison is a PhD candidate in the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney. The paper on which this piece is based, co-authored with Professor Simon Chapman, is published today in the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE.

Disclosure: Michelle Imison is a member of the Board of Oxfam Australia.