Saturday, June 2, 2007

Christine Gorman's Global Health Talk

I gave a talk on May 31, 2007 at the annual meeting of the Global Health Council about covering global health: who's reporting, who's listening and what stories are we missing? Several people asked for a copy of my remarks. So, scroll down if you want to see my notes (with a couple of links thrown in). I can't promise that I gave the speech verbatim as you see it here, but it was pretty close.

Covering Global Health News

Thank you, Laura and members of the Global Health Coalition.

In the next ten minutes I hope to do three things: celebrate some highpoints, share a few concerns I have about global health news coverage and issue a challenget

The challenge is to those of you in the room who don’t consider yourselves to be journalists.

Could I get a show of hands of all the non-journalists in the room?

Okay. Consider yourselves warned. I’m going to make a challenge to you at the end.

First up on our whirlwind tour is AIDS. Journalists have written and produced so many words and images about AIDS over the past two decades that it has led to some of our best as well as some of worst work. Twenty years ago, I was told by a top editor at TIME that we could not use the phrase “full-blown” to describe anything having to do with AIDS in our family-friendly magazine because it sounded perilously close to “blow-job,” which, I guess, is what he imagined all those previously invisible gay men must have been doing to create this epidemic in the first place.

Nowadays, we don’t have to talk about HIV in whispers and innuendo—at least on the official level and to varying degrees throughout society, whether in North America, Europe or in most developing countries.

Of course in the U.S., we’ve gone in the 1980s from NOT talking about AIDS in the to the 1990s in which we talked quite a LOT about AIDS in the US while ignoring the rest of the world to the past seven years or so in which we’ve talked quite a lot about AIDS in the rest of the world while ignoring it in the U.S. So the circle turns.

Trailing AIDS in number but not necessarily in quality, we have a range of stories about malaria, tuberculosis and polio, with a smattering of offerings on diarrheal diseases, genital mutilation and rape—any one of which quickly disappears under the occasional flood of bird flu news.

These single-issue stories are the easiest ones for us journalists, driven by ever-shorter deadlines, to understand and produce. A single illness, a single vaccination campaign, a single celebrity or event gives us focus and provides the inherent structure for the story.

While I’m at it, I’ve heard a little grumbling over the past couple of days about how AIDS sucks all the oxygen—and the grant money—out of the room. Let me just say that if there hadn’t been so much coverage on AIDS over the past few years, I doubt there’d be as much interest in malaria, tuberculosis, guinea worm, etc. as there is now. AIDS has opened the eyes of many in the First World to the health problems of the Third World.

Okay, so journalists are not so good at writing the stories that cut across lines, across diseases, across silos. Sound familiar?

But back to journalists. Let’s be honest. Stories that cut across silos are tought to write. And, they’re tougher stories to sell to our editors, the gatekeepers of what gets published in the traditional media.

Still, there are a few stories that get at some of this interplay:

• Ciara Curtin’s piece in Scientific American last December about the link between new highway construction in Ecuador and the spread of diarrheal pathogens. In fact, there’s a whole genre of highway and health stories. Highways and emerging diseases. Truck routes and HIV.

• Celia Dugger’s front page article in the New York Times that looked at the difficulties of QUOTE getting an unwieldy collection of international organizations and charities to work together effectively UNQUOTE to use everything from vitamin A supplements to bed nets to measles and polio vaccines all at the same time to combat common preventable diseases in children.

• Various reports in the Ugandan press probing corruption in the ministry of health and beyond for misuse of GAVI funds.

We need more of these—a lot more of these stories that cut across categories.

What other themes are we missing?

Here are my top three:

1. The foundational roles that clean drinking water and basic sewage treatment play in promoting health.

2. The growing threat of all the drug-resistant microbes combined—staph, strep, tuberculosis—and our own role in making matters worse.

3. The preference for pills over people—doctors, nurse, health community workers—when it comes to funding basic healthcare infrastructure.

After that, if I could just name a couple of others—although there are many more:

The extent to which international agencies and non-government organizations actually cripple the public sector by luring the few doctors and nurses out of public hospitals and clinics.

Any real critical analysis of the Gates Foundation’s effect—both positive and negative—on global health efforts. It has certainly grabbed a lot of people’s attention. And done a lot of good. But does it have too much power? Is it scaring off other donors? Shoving aside effective, more home-grown or low-tech efforts?

Any stories about successes. Any stories in which success is credited to local organizations and leaders and not just the benevolence or foresight of international agencies and non-government organizations.

Which brings me to WHO is being left out of stories on global health.

Next time you read a news article on a global health issue or look at the accompanying images or the standalone video, ask yourself who are the actors and do-ers in the story and who are the recipients, the acted upon? Chances are the people who are fighting the good fight are from the richest countries of the world. And everyone else is either grateful, passive or ignorant. Come on. Does this really reflect reality on the ground?

My hope is that as more journalists in the poorest parts of the world write more extensively about health issues and their work becomes more widely available, we’ll hear more about these homegrown heroes of global health. And that there will be more give and take about what’s really need and who’s really benefiting from all these worthy programs.

Finally, about that challenge to those of you who don’t consider yourselves journalists. You may not have noticed but the field of journalism—at least as practiced in North America and Europe—is itself going through tremendous upheaval right now. There are lots of reasons for this but most of them trace back to the Internet and the evolving digital revolution that makes it possible to dispense with the middleman-or-middlewoman from any social, commercial or political interaction. Just look at what’s happened with real estate, automobile sales and financial services.

As for journalism, what it means is that there are fewer beat reporters, people who are given the time and resources to specialize in a particular topic. There are fewer book reviewers, fewer environment reporters, fewer film critics, fewer health reporters and certainly fewer journalists who can report exclusively on global health issues.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that you have an opportunity now, as never before, to get your story out—and I don’t mean simply by posting all your press releases on the Internet, although that’s a start. And I certainly don’t mean by e-mailing ME your press releases.

Blast e-mail is dead, killed—much like antibiotics—by indiscriminate overuse. The noise to signal ratio has gotten so high in the flood of emails that journalists receive that most of them—at least the smart ones—are ignoring blast e-mails and relegating more and more of them to their spam filters.

What’s taking their place? Filtered RSS feeds, web alerts and the creative use of search engines. I don’t have time to go into all the details here but suffice it to say that RSS stands for really simple syndication. It’s a great way of creating a sort of web-friendly ticker tape of news, email posts or alerts that interested individuals can subscribe to, search and even filter for keywords as they drill down in the search for timely news and information. If you’re interested in getting the word out about your program, your ideas, your policy proposals and values, you need to know about RSS.

You probably also want to consider applying for some of the free ads is making available to non-profit groups whose missions QUOTE range from animal welfare to literacy, from supporting homeless children to promoting HIV education UNQUOTE.

I can’t tell you how much the journalists who are left are scouring web pages, reading RSS feeds and checking search engines in their quest for new stories and new angles for ongoing stories.

I call this search-engine journalism and what it means is that you don’t have to bring your story to individual journalists so much as you used to, figuring out who to contact and when. Instead, interested journalists will find you—and, guess what, they won’t all be from the New York Times. They may not even look like regular journalists. My regular reading includes such blogs as Aetiology, Effect Measure, Larry Hollon’s Perspectives and Global Voices Online. You can find the urls for these blogs, as well as a copy of my remarks on my website

So my challenge to you—while you’re waiting for the traditional media to catch up—is to write your own articles and produce your own slide shows, video and other multi-media—leavened with a touch of Daily Show humor if you’re serious about reaching a wider audience. You should actively contribute to the rich interplay of ideas that is happening on the web. You may be surprised to learn just how often the media follow, as well as lead.

Thank you very much.


Anonymous said...

Terrific remarks, Christine. I enjoyed them so much, that I posted a link to your from Forum One's own blog.

It's always great when seasoned journalists such as yourself recognize the potential of the technology. That said, the technology is irrelevant if people at organizations don't step, accept your challenge, and tell the important stories that the traditional media are ignoring. Cheers,

Christine Gorman said...

Thanks, Andrew. The great thing about giving speeches is that it forces me to pull together some ideas and impressions that have been bouncing around in my head for a while and give them a coherent form. It really helps me figure out what I think, gives me a chance to make meaning out of the moment.

Anonymous said...

Dear Christine, This is a wonderful speech and I'm glad you recognized so eloquently the hugely under-recognized global health issue of safe, affordable, and sustainable sources of drinking water and adequate sanitation. I hope you'll be writing and speaking more about this crisis that kills up to five million people annually and yet has so many solutions at hand.

Christine Gorman said...

Thanks, John. I hope you'll also make common cause with those who are fighting polio and other childhood diseases, as well as those who support girls' education and women's political and economic rights--all overlap fundamentally with water issues.