As previewed at Croakey, the recent New News conference in Melbourne had a session exploring public health and the media.

Craig Butt, a digital producer for the Melbourne Press Club, kindly provided this report, examining tobacco industry skulduggery, the quality of media reporting on health and the challenges involved, the emergence of new forms of media, and the ever-increasing reach of the rural mental health Twitter chat group. The session concluded with a suggestion that the future of public health journalism may lie in collaboration.

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The news on public health

Craig Butt writes:

British American Tobacco misrepresented an investigation into connections between cigarette smuggling and organised crime to argue against the introduction of plain cigarette packaging in Australia, attendees at the New News Conference were told last Friday.

Monash University senior lecturer Bill Birnbauer, who chaired the public health and media session, said the report in fact showed tobacco companies, including British American Tobacco, “worked closely with companies and individuals connected to organised crime”.

In an interview with The Sunday Age, a spokeswoman for British American Tobacco (BAT) had advised people refer to an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) investigation into the booming trade in cigarette smuggling, Tobacco Underground, to see how introducing plain packaging would be a boon to organised crime.

This argument also formed the basis of a short film produced by BAT, ‘Who’s in Control’, which depicts criminal gangs gaining more power as a result of the proposed changes.

Birnbauer, a onetime health editor at The Age, spent a year working with the ICIJ on the report, which included material on the murder of an informer who was about to blow the lid on a $1.2 billion smuggling operation and implicate three former BAT executives in a bribery scandal.

“British American Tobacco, rather than being the victim of the smuggling, was actually the perpetrator,” he said.

Legislation requiring cigarettes to be sold in plain packages was passed through the House of Representatives last Wednesday. If it makes it through the Upper House, Australia will be the first country in the world to introduce such a law.

While BAT argued that plan packaging would increase smuggling, Imperial Tobacco has campaigned against the proposed changes by asking members of the public to “stop this nanny state”.

Froncesca Jackson-Webb, health and medicine editor of The Conversation, does not believe the campaigns are motivated by a concern for public health.

“This isn’t about protecting consumers from the governments’ paternalism. It isn’t about Australia turning into a nanny state. It’s about Imperial Tobacco and other tobacco companies continuing to make as much money as possible from selling cigarettes,” she said.

Jackson-Webb hopes the likely success of the plain packaging legislation will lead to successes in other areas such as restrictions on junk food advertising.

But cigarette packaging wasn’t the only topic canvassed by the panel, which also included social media expert Briony Walker and The Conversation’s Reema Rattan. The session discussed public health reporting and assessed how well the media covers this important area.

While the panel agreed there were a number of excellent journalists working in the area of health, their consensus was the media’s reporting public health issues left much to be desired.

“There’s a real disconnect between what the media presents and what the audience wants,” Birnbauer said.

Criticisms of existing reporting of public health issues included the tendency of traditional media to avoid complexity and instead present stories as easy to digest, black and white affairs.

They also acknowledged some of the difficulties involved with being a health reporter, such as having to deal with a constant bombardment of press releases announcing the latest miracle cure, and of taking complex information written in technical language by researchers and translating it into laymen’s terms.

But the tone was not all negative. The theme of the New News Conference this year was ‘what’s next’ and the panel looked at the opportunities new media offers for improving health reporting.

Reema Rattan, a section editor of health and medicine for the online publication, pointed out that thanks to the Internet, scientists and researchers were able to bypass traditional media to get the word out on their research. “More and more scientists run their own blogs, which is really interesting. Especially the ones who work in really controversial areas,” Rattan said.

Rattan used as an example a piece by Cathrine Fowler, a researcher whose work was presented in an unflattering light by an article in The Sunday Telegraph. She received a torrent of abuse, to the extent where somebody placed leaflets on car windshields in her workplace’s car park criticising her research. Writing for The Conversation provided her the opportunity to tell her side of the story.

“That’s one of the roles of new media, holding traditional media to account. That’s one of the things that motivated us and is certainly one of the things that motivated our founders, who come from traditional media and feel that the standards have deteriorated quite a lot,” Rattan said.

New avenues for discussing public health issues have also opened up thanks to social media.

Social media expert Briony Walker spoke about an online forum she co-founded, Rural Mental Health, which connects communities with a common interest in mental health issues.

These forums take the form of Twitter chats every second Wednesday that use the hashtag #ruralmh. Topics of discussion have included the ban on live exports, which had a huge impact on farmers and their mental health as they felt demonized by the negative media coverage the meat export industry received. A chat on rural youth last week attracted 38 participants but Walker says it went out to 48 000 people after tweets within the chat were retweeted by other Twitter users.

Walker believes these chats give communities the chance to discuss public health issues that receive scant coverage in the media.  “This (social media) is the way of the future. I think if traditional media wants to influence or wants to actually engage the community they have to take part,” Walker said.

She also advised on ways individuals could get their content out on video sharing platforms like YouTube but was unsure of how public health could be promoted on the service.

As the panel discussion unfolded and questions were taken from the audience, it became clear that each area had its own distinct strengths and weaknesses. Concluding the session, Bill Birnbauer proposed one possible solution:

“I think part of the answer, if there is an answer, is collaborations – collaborations between mainstream media, non profit centres, community groups and social media,” Birnbauer said.

Here’s the YouTube link to the session.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gS8Z_8CvA4[/youtube]

Here’s a link to the audio of the session.

• Craig Butt coordinated social media at the New News conference last week, a joint initiative of the Melbourne Writers Festival and Public Interest Journalism Foundation.