What’s global health journalism?

My online reporting or blogging — or whatever it is I think I’m doing here (the point of this post, by the way) — was interrupted this week by flying back-and-forth between Seattle and Washington, D.C.

I was invited to participate in a discussion at the Kaiser Foundation about “The Future of Global Health Journalism” — in which I was quoted extensively out of context.

That’s fun to be able to say, since usually people complain to me about doing this to them. What I mean by out of context, however, is I was quoted after losing my context (i.e., job) when my former employer, the Seattle Post Intelligencer, decided to get rid of most of its staff and become instead an online blogfest of mostly unpaid “hyperlocal” citizen journalists.

I now operate within a new context, as an “experiment” for NPR, the nature of which is not always totally clear even to me yet supposedly represents the future of journalism — online journalism, new media, social media or (yuck?) blogging. The Kaiser Foundation does a great job of covering the coverage of global health news but I’m not sure it gets where journalism is going. I’m not sure anyone does, though some do claim to know.

You can read the report for much of what we all said and think. It’s a good overview, prepared for the foundation by two excellent journalists John Donnelly and Nellie Bristol. And here is a more “new media” take on it by Sarah Arnquist at Global Health Hub.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that most media don’t like to cover global health issues – in part because of a reduction in foreign news coverage in general and also because, well, the stories are often viewed as an endless series of do-gooder tales and sick kids. Boring! Can we get George Clooney into the story?

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The elephant in the room at the Kaiser Foundation (figuratively speaking, since it was neither a real elephant or actually in the room) was the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Seattle philanthropy is a major player in global health matters, it pays media to cover global health and also partially funds Kaiser’s work in this arena.

Oh, and the Gates Foundation has also given money to my current overlords at NPR. It’s welcome funding, given the dire financial straits and collapsed business model afflicting most media. But it also obviously poses a potential conflict of interest for journalists.

I’ve written about this dilemma (ad nauseum?), most recently by taking a critical look at the new ABC News partnership with the Gates Foundation which has launched a year-long global health series. As it turned out, I sat at the Kaiser event between two ABC journalists who are working on that series. They didn’t stab me with their shrimp forks. We instead talked about how this is a real problem, but manageable.

As journalists, we spent a lot of the evening talking about ourselves and what we do (have you noticed we do that?). I was especially guilty of this, complaining that I seem to exist in a journalistic netherworld that both Kaiser and the Gates Foundation, despite their stated desires to promote global health journalism, can’t quite figure out.

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I’m a blogger. And a journalist. I report on the news but am also supposed to be more personal, more conversational. So is what I do news or opinion, or neither? Is it more of the British journalism model, in which you are expected to offer (to reveal) your opinion as a writer so long as you fairly describe differing views?

Nobody seems able to answer this question (including me), and one result is that organizations like Kaiser or Gates almost never cite me even though they regularly cite traditional media. This categorical oblivion is not a problem unique to them, but maybe discomfort with the changing news landscape is part of the problem here.

But more important to the future of global health journalism than the changing journalistic landscape is what I would argue is the lack of a clear definition of what we mean by “global health.”

I’ve written about this lack of clarity over the years and I’m not alone in recognizing it as a problem. Even the global health community has a problem with the definition.

My two cents is that global health should be primarily viewed as one of many strategies aimed at reducing global poverty, inequity. It’s about improving health and doing science to find new vaccines, sure, but those are just the means to an end and not the end itself.

If we aren’t careful in how we “frame” this story, we’re at risk of turning this into a story about health care, science or western do-gooders — about us — rather than about how best to help those most in need.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.