Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Looking for Context in Global Health Reporting

To me, the most satisfying news stories are the ones that provide a context that continues to inform long after the news has turned old. That kind of deeper context is often what I look for in global health stories but do not usually find. Something to think about if you are hoping to improve the routine coverage of global health news.

I am thinking about this now for several reasons. Sharon Schmickle’s amazing article today in the Washington Post on the growing global threat of wheat rust—she provides plenty of context—finally got me to write these thoughts down.

When Josh Benton of the Nieman Foundation was in New York a couple weeks ago, we had a long chat about what constitutes context in news stories. (That's the kind of stuff we enjoy talking about.) He told me about Matt Johnson’s project at the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute.

As I understand it, Matt’s key insight came when he read decades worth of stories about commercial development in and around Columbia, Missouri. He realized he didn’t feel any better informed about the major factors, developers and politicians involved after reading one or 100 stories. Each story had to be taken on its own—separate from the others. The long-term context did not emerge from reading all those stories. It was all information overload with no meaning.

Johnson’s project is to see if there is a way to make that context more explicit, so that each news item about development either contributes to the context or benefits from it. What Matt Johnson says about the search for more context in the news makes a lot of sense to me.

In January, Jeb Sharp of PRI’s The World launched a new history podcast called “How We Got Here.” It looks at the history that continues to shape current events. Her inaugural piece was about Iran—because of all the talk about the incoming Obama Administration’s possible diplomatic outreach to that country.

But Sharp’s reporting on the three weeks in 1953 in which CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt nearly single-handedly engineered a coup in Iran provided some of the missing context that I was looking for in an entirely different story. Namely, it helped me understand a little better why the Iranian government recently tried and convicted a pair of Iranian AIDS doctors for conspiring to foment a “velvet revolution” by attending international medical conferences.

Earlier this month, Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of Global Voices, wrote a very good piece that provides the missing context around the recent unrest in Madagascar. I have actually been following this in the news—in the New York Times and on the web. But nothing explained WHY this was happening NOW in the way that Ethan’s blog post did.

It makes me think of David Pogue’s Missing Manuals enterprise. You know, computer software doesn’t ship with printed instructional material any more. You have to either go online or screen through an electronic manual. But a lot of us still find a book a useful way to organize information—to get the broader view. So when software companies stopped supplying physical manuals, Pogue stepped into the gap with his Missing Manual series.

Supplying the missing context turned out to be a good business model for Pogue. Makes me wonder if that case is transferable to reporting about global health?


Anonymous said...


Thank you for blogging! The research and time you put into maintaining the Global Health Report doesn't go unnoticed.

I especially thought your work regarding Pumpy'Nut was extremely fascinating. I know you're busy, but could we set up a time to talk this week regarding RUTFs and other ways people are trying to alleviate malnutrition? I'm also a health reporter, and I'm working on an in-depth feature for THINK magazine. I'd be thrilled to talk with you. I know you're busy, but just a few minutes would be greatly appreciated.

Feel free to give me a call at any time (319.830.6782) or shoot me an e-mail at

Look forward to hearing from you.

Kayla Craig

Anonymous said...

I think providing this kind of context is one of the most valuable things bloggers can do - but we get much of our info from various mainstream media sources in the first place. In turn, a lot of the best in-depth MSM coverage is funded by grants. I noticed that the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting supported Sharon Scmickle's travel to Kenya, and I've seen a lot of great work coming from Alicia Patterson fellows ... and, of course, you're already well aware of what a journalist can do with a Nieman fellowship!

Another PRI show that provides great context is PRI's "America Abroad."

- Liz Borkowski