This (rather longish) post summarises recent developments in health journalism internationally, as well as developments in journalism more broadly that have some relevance for public health. It is sourced almost entirely from links circulated via Twitter.

It includes plenty of suggestions for how Australian institutions – whether universities, health organisations, governments, the not-for-profit sector or corporates – could help contribute to the development of healthy journalism and public debate.

It is broken into sections:

1. Developments in health journalism
2. Developments in journalism more broadly
3. Food for thought
4. Useful media tools
5. In conclusion…

(It is an unusually long post, and if you are short on time, you may wish to skip to the sections of most interest.)


1. Developments in health journalism

Some bad news, good news

A recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, called “Taking the Temperature: The Future of Global Health Journalism”,  is based upon interviews with 51 reporters, editors, freelancers and producers working in mainstream media or at specialised outlets like trade and policy publications.

It includes plenty of depressing news such as experienced journalists being unable to find a market for their work. But it also profiles the birth of new opportunities. While the flow of global health news may no longer be concentrated in the mainstream media, there is no shortage of information available for those who know where to look, it suggests.

The new ventures include:

• Online-only news sites and health- related journals have begun to provide  independent journalism on global health. Medical, science and health policy journals have expanded their global health reach, supported both by grants and a larger global health professional audience. While the journals’ primary purpose is to publish research, several also now offer news columns or field-based reporting.

• Advocacy organizations have started to produce their own types of “news” that not only inform their constituencies, but in some cases have provided content for mainstream media. Several hire former journalists and freelancers to write stories for their own publications or media outlets. They also are making better use of social media.

EG. Medecins Sans Frontieres produces original content, including videos for the Web, audio pieces or slide shows. It also now provides more raw materials, footage and interviews with their experts, especially for TV.  An MSF staffer said: “…we’re responding a little bit to a resource gap probably in the news gathering budget and that’s evidenced by the closure of foreign bureaus all across the world which has been a trend for at least five years if not longer now.”

EG. Center for Global Development, a Washington, DC- based think tank, has developed an active blog on global health issues.

• Mainstream news media are making their global health coverage work with the help of outside funding. One interviewee said that previously, mainstream media mostly shied away from stories funded by outsiders for fear of violating standards of journalistic integrity and independence. As outside groups develop a proven track record and as their own resources dwindle, outlets are more accepting of the practice.

EG: PBS NewsHour and public radio International’s (prI) the World have received grants from the Gates Foundation to cover global health stories. NPR also has received funding from the Gates Foundation, although the national station no longer allows targeted funding for specific coverage. In 2010, the Gates Foundation also entered into separate agreements with the Guardian newspaper in the UK to partially fund a blog on global development as well as with ABC News, dedicating $1.5 million toward the network’s $6 million budget for a year-long series on global health issues.

EG: The Pulitzer Center on Crisis reporting also has expanded into multimedia production and training and as an agent connecting funders with journalists to produce material for a variety of outlets. Funders can sometimes put stipulations on the coverage by steering funding toward particular topics. For example, the Pulitzer Center received money from the MAC AIDS foundation to write about AIDS in the Caribbean.

More analysis of the report is here.

On a similar note, in California a major health charity is funding journalists’ positions at selected print and broadcast media outlets to cover community health. The journalists answer to their outlets’ normal editorial processes and the charity, the California Endowment, has no editorial involvement.


A collaboration between journalists, programmers and health professionals

The Global Health Hub aims to provide a reliable and contextualized gateway to online commentary and resources related to global health and development. It aggregates content from around the web (news, blog posts, twitter feeds, jobs & grants postings, calendars, discussion forums and more), and also publishes original news and commentary pieces.

The Hub uses the open-source SwiftRiver news verification and sorting platform in a format specially designed for the Hub.

A group of volunteers with backgrounds in medicine, public health, journalism and computer programming and a common interest in global public health are behind the project. Seed funding came from the Grey Family Foundation, but it seems to rely largely on volunteer labour.


Another not-for-profit health news service

Health News Florida, an independent online news service, is a not-for-profit journalistic enterprise that was launched in 2007 with seed money from foundations.  Its mission to inform the public on state and local health policy and finance issues as they develop. Health News Florida (HNF) posts health-related stories reported around the state, highlights the Florida impact of national stories, and tracks state health legislation.  Apart from publishing e-newsletters and on its website, the Associated Press distributes summaries of its stories, and a growing number of newspapers have published their stories in full, with byline credit.


Explanatory journalism

This US-based project, Explainer.Net, encourages “explantory journalism”, a genre that aims to provide “the essential background knowledge necessary to follow events in the news”. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is one of its partners. (This blog links to an example of explanatory journalism from Mother Jones around the recent uprisings in Egypt.) And on a similar theme, this new “context management system” called Sourcerer aims to make it easier for people to make sense of the news.

It seems to Croakey that there is enormous potential for academics and related institutions to collaborate with journalists and media organisations in developing this genre. For example, this resource which explains health care reform, US-style, might be a good starting point… Australia also could do with better explanation of health reform and related issues. And also climate change policies…


New European training for health journalists

According to this report, as part of the Health Reporting Training project (HeaRT), health journalists, professionals and academics from seven European Union member countries will work for two years on researching current levels of training and produce and pilot training tools. Workshops will be conducted in all partner countries and an online e-learning tool as well as an easy-to-use CD ROM will be developed and distributed across the EU.


New investigative news service to focus on health and safety

An investigative news service has been launched in the US aimed at producing in-depth coverage of health and safety issues. The non-profit venture is being launched in the state of Connecticut and will initially focus on local stories. The Connecticut Health Investigative Team or C-HIT will also provide searchable databases on health-related issues and has already launched two, covering nursing homes and ambulance response times across the state.

The project has been launched by the Online Journalism Project, a not-for-profit news network led by Paul Bass and launched in 2005 that is also behind the Newhaven Independent website.


Training for health bloggers and online editors

The University of Southern California Annenberg’s California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships has launched a new program this year to educate bloggers and editors of online news sites on ways to chronicle the health of their communities. The program will also help participants improve the “health” and sustainability of their own websites, with strategic and technical advice provided through a partnership with the Renaissance Journalism Center at San Francisco State. This program is co-sponsored by the Online News Association.

The program will provide participants with new insights, storytelling approaches, and tools for chronicling the life and the health of communities; new strategies for building and engaging diverse audiences; and proven approaches for involving community contributors.

Frank Bass, enterprise reporter for Bloomberg News’ Washington bureau and the former director of computer investigations for The Associated Press – will show fellows how to build demographic profiles of their communities from the data trickling out of the 2010 Census. Other speakers will help fellows understand how conditions in the community affect residents’ prospects for good and ill  health.

Sounds like a good idea that could easily be adapted for use in Australia…again there is potential for journalists to work with public health types in compiling such profiles.


Training for medical journalists

In July, the National Institutes of Health, along with partners at Dartmouth College and the Department of Veterans Affairs, will present a free course to help develop journalists’ ability to critically evaluate and report on medical research.

Again, isn’t this something that Australian organisations, such as the NHMRC or the Sax Institute or any number of universities, could consider?


Training science journalists in developing countries

This report describes a project from the World Federation of Science Journalists (a Canadian non-profit that aims to improve the quality of science reporting), which was successful in mentoring and graduating 32 science journalists, creating an online course in science journalism, fostering science journalists associations in Africa and the Middle East, supporting local activities of these associations, and creating international twinning arrangements among associations.


Business publishing brings in the money

According to this UK report, a magazine focusing on the business side of general practice is booming. Perhaps this is not quite what is meant by the saying, that journalists should follow the money trail… It’s a reminder that journalism focusing on the issues of the poor and disenfranchised tends to be more difficult to fund. Or as I remember a former editorial manager at the Sydney Morning Herald once saying, it’s the A-B audiences we want (ie the wealthier ones who attract a better class of advertising).


2. Developments in journalism more broadly that are relevant for public health

Universities supporting investigative journalism

The Lab at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University has called for applications from investigative journalists to write monographs about “institutional corruption” within selected institutions. On offer are fellowships for one to two years. The blurb says: “institutional corruption” refers not to bribery, or other familiar violations of law or ethics. It refers instead to influences within an economy of influence that tend to (1) weaken the effectiveness of an institution, especially by (2) weakening public trust of the institution. Such institutions can be either public or private, and if private, then either for-profit or not-for-profit. They include among others the academy, public health institutions, the financial services industry, the elected state judiciary, media (public and private), and Congress. Candidates will keep the copyright to any work produced, but grant the Center a nonexclusive license to publish the final report.

Meanwhile, Australian journalism schools are increasingly supporting investigative journalism. One of the most recent examples comes from a Monash University journalism academic, Bill Birnbauer, (who will be known to many Croakey readers for his work in health investigations over the years) and his students. It’s puzzling that mainstream newspapers in Australia aren’t making better use of online innovation to do such investigations, instead of relying on the celebrity puffery that tends to dominate their websites.


Government agencies commissioning investigative journalism

This report describes how a regional government in Oregon has hired a reporter to cover itself, and canvasses some of the ethical issues involved. The former newspaper reporter has written dozens of articles that appear on the agency’s website. A disclaimer at the top of the journalist’s articles says they are not subject to approval by the organisation’s officials, although the communications director reviews them in what he describes as an editing role.

On a similar theme, this report describes how governments and oversight agencies in the US are hiring investigative journalists to dig from the inside.


Journalists as “social entrepreneurs”

Jeremy Adam Smith, a Knight Fellow at Stanford University, reports here on a recent survey of 157 journalists (I was one of them), investigating how meaningful journalism is being financed.

He found that today’s meaningful journalism can best be characterised as not for profit, collaborative, and cross-platform, and says his findings “add to the growing pile of evidence that journalism is becoming a form of social entrepreneurship—an endeavor that combines commercial and nonprofit methods to achieve social change”.

The survey also found that journalists who are out on their own, freelancers and entrepreneurs, are much more optimistic about their careers and the field than those who are working for someone else. The projects were more often than not financed by (and shared among) multiple sources. These arrangements led many participants to envision a future in which journalists are (to quote one) “free agents” who piece together funding for their projects.


Trends for the immediate future

Joshua Benton, who runs the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, gave a talk in Canada earlier this year laying out eight trends for journalism in 2011. It’s well worth a read.

At the conclusion, he says.

I feel better about the state of journalism now than I have in quite some time. That doesn’t necessarily mean that newspapers are suddenly going to begin hundreds of reporters back. That’s probably not going to happen. It doesn’t mean that the old system of scarcity is going to return, because it’s not. But you do have traditional news organizations placing bigger bets on online, trying to create revenue models that can work. You do see the opportunities that tablets and smartphones are going to provide. You have startups that are finally achieving a degree of scale — things like Politico which now has a newsroom in the many dozens of people. You have big online outlets that are trying to gain prestige by hiring name-brand journalists, whether it’s AOL News or Yahoo News or the Huffington Post. And you have nonprofits that doing a lot of the work that would otherwise fall between the cracks in this very multifaceted system. So when all is said and done, the new world is not going to look anything like the old world. And there will still be things that we used to get from the journalism industry that we’re not going to get anymore. But in the end, I think it’s going to be counterbalanced by all the enormous wealth of new information, including a lot of really great journalism, that’s going to be produced by this new ecosystem. And in the end, I think it’s going to end up doing a better job of serving the information needs of readers and viewers and listeners.


Helping newsrooms get with the technology

I’d LOVE one of these people in my home-office….Knight Foundation and Mozilla are joining forces to help the media adapt to the evolving digital landscape, in a new partnership that will place technologists in newsrooms to devise ways to engage people in the news. More detail is in this release.


Supporting the spread of citizen journalism

The Knight Foundation has also supported a project to train citizens in South Africa in contributing to radio reports about their communities.

Meanwhile, The Centre for Public Integrity reports that it has launched a partnership with American Public Media’s Public Insight Network or PIN — a group of over 90,000 people (and counting) that have signed up to be “citizen sources” to help journalists all around the country. For example, when reporting on a story about an Environmental Protection Agency proposal to regulate coal ash, the journalists identified PIN sources living in or near postcodes that contained a coal-producing power plant or coal ash disposal site. They emailed each of these individuals, asking them about their experience with coal ash and how informed they were about the EPA’s current debate over regulation. They soon received more than 30 responses, a majority of which contained rich insights into how communities across the country were coping with coal ash waste, providing many good leads for the reporters to pursue.

Again, it seems there are real opportunities in this sort of approach for Australian public health and public advocacy groups to pursue, in collaboration with outward looking media organisations.

Indeed, a community news project was recently launched in Australia that aims to map reports of local news and issues., which is built using the crowd-sourcing technology Ushahidi, will use Google Maps to plot local concerns. In a similar approach to US platform EveryBlock, now owned by MSNBC, EveryMap will show details of local building projects, crime data, traffic and accidents, as well as requests for local authorities to fix problems. Reports can be submitted to the site via Twitter using the hashtag #everymap, using an online form or emailing the site.EveryMap is the latest launch from Australian hyperlocal news network

We’re increasingly seeing community organisations and other agencies becoming news gatherers and spreaders. This report suggests three models for creating online community hubs. The accompanying blurb notes that access to relevant, high-quality information about the community is a key ingredient to a vibrant civic culture and a necessary element for fostering robust civic engagement.  The report explores three scenarios under which community leaders and other stakeholders can work together to create local online hubs where citizens can access information about their governments and local communities. Ensuring that every local community has at least one high-quality hub is one of 15 key recommendations made by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.  “Just as communities depend on maps of physical space, they should create maps of information flow that enable members of the public to connect to the data and information they want,” said the Knight Commission.

And this community news outlet in Maryland is moving entirely to Facebook, while the Australian group InfoXchange gives examples of using online technologies to tackle disadvantage and promote social inclusion and participation in poor areas in Melbourne


Crowd-funding of stories

Read about how an acclaimed article in The New Yorker, detailing how the press distorted the iconic toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, in the spring of 2003, was funded. Crowd-funding is hard work though.

And below is a cute example (recently given at a social media conference in the US) about how one young man was able to crowd-fund dental surgery – “Jeffery Self Needs a New Tooth”. Apart from its entertainment value, perhaps there are serious lessons to draw from this example for under-served areas in health?



3. Food for thought

Beyond publication bias

An experienced health journalist, Dr Ivan Oransky, encourages journalists to be aware of the pitfalls of publication bias and to cover negative findings. This article about publication bias in the psychiatric literature raises similar quandries – for journalists, as well as health professionals. And another form of publishing bias: this article suggests the clout of pharma advertising can influence editorial processes in mainstream media. Meanwhile, a reminder of the perils of reporting on preliminary studies – especially posters at conferences.


Are journals wrong to restrict access to information?

This PLOS blog argues that limiting access to important health information is wrong. Does the current model of scientific and medical journal publishing have a future, I wonder?

Meanwhile, the traditional peer review process is also under challenge. Whether wikis provide a viable alternative is the subject of an experiment at Open Medicine.


Science bloggers versus science journalists

This report about a recent science bloggers conference in the US says the mood was very different to that found in traditional news rooms.  “The black humor, cynicism and ironic detachment of newspaper newsrooms was replaced by an eagerness to learn and a willingness to share. These folks – and I count myself among them – love what they do.” That observation helps explain why so much of the online world runs on gift labour. But how long can the love be sustained (a question that I ask of myself quite often…).


A framework for understanding the changing media landscape

Paul Bradshaw, a visiting professor of online journalism at City University in London gave a talk this week that explains how digitisation has changed news gathering, news production and news distribution. Worth a read.


4. Useful Media Tools

• Prominent science journalist Tim Radford’s rules for writing

• A Nieman Journalism Lab report on how Google is making available its Google Explorer tool to help journalists (and presumably others) translate public data into visual images that are more accessible and meaningful than raw statistics. Again a tool that would be useful to collaborations between journalists and researchers.

• Seven social media habits of effective health reporters (and presumably any other type of reporter as well), by the new media editor at Mother Jones, Laura McClure. An extract:

If you have to pick only one social media platform to focus on, make it Twitter. Why? Because it’s a great way to make friends, influence people, and impress future bosses/editors/sources. Because it’s the easiest way to get your writing into the Library of Congress. Because it’s the fastest way to amplify and extend the reach of a story or topic you care about. Because influential people or sources who ignore your emails will sometimes respond to you on Twitter.

This informative blog explains why knowing how to code is helpful for journalists, and gives links to plenty of relevant tools. More here on data journalism, while this link offers a computational journalism reading list.

• Propublica’s Dollars for Docs investigation has previously had a good rap from Croakey. This article explains some of the web tools used in the investigation, including Google Refine (for data cleaning). This all looks very daunting for solo operators like me, and again reinforces the potential benefits of multidisciplinary collaboration.

• Beyond Wikileaks – a platform has been launched in the UK that aims to open up company data. Perhaps this may prove a tool for public health researchers as well as journalists…

• Tips for better journalism, including seeking out under-covered communities.


5. In conclusion…

1. The media landscape is evolving so rapidly, it’s almost impossible to keep up (my head hurts just from compiling all this…)

2. Multidisciplinary collaboration offers many opportunities. But journalists have traditionally been solo operators or, at a push, working with colleagues. Collaboration with other disciplines and organisations presents many challenges. We will have to learn how to manage these.

3. Those individuals, researchers and organisations with a concern for public health should be engaging proactively with the changing media landscape. The opportunities for disadvantaged communities are particularly worth exploring and developing.

What have I missed?


• Declaration: Melissa Sweet is secretary of the board of the Public Interest Journalism Foundation, which is based at Swinburne University of Technology.

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