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Gates Foundation’s new media relations man defends negative stories

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation wants the media (and, it should be noted, pays some media) to emphasize “success stories” in global health and development.

That’s fine, but sometimes the story has to be about failure. Here is a video of Jeremy Hillman, a BBC journalist who will soon join the Gates Foundation media team.

Here, Hillman is defending the BBC against complaints that the news organization has tended to emphasize the negative when reporting on the economic downturn in Britain. Some say the BBC’s pessimism about the economic recession is even “contributing to its severity.”

I would say this discussion applies equally, perhaps even more urgently, to the media’s coverage of global health and development.

As a journalist, I am very sympathetic to Hillman’s defense. It’s often tough to convince people that bad news can be good for you (like cod liver oil, or ipecac).

People think the media do negative stories because they sell. Yeah, okay, that’s true for the stories about celebrities misbehaving. But stories about joblessness, foreclosures or the economy are seldom sensational. Most responsible news organizations do these stories because they think this bad news is important.

I am also sympathetic to the Gates Foundation’s desire to tell the success stories in the fight against poverty and disease in the developing world.

Bill and Melinda Gates like to say they are optimists; they want optimistic news. Too many news stories in global health or development are focused on the problems, as opposed to solutions and signs of progress.

But there’s also a downside, a negative if you will, with the Gates Foundation trying too hard to shift our focus away from failure.

The Seattle philanthropy is one of the biggest players in global health and development today. Clearly, it is one of the leaders setting the global agenda on many issues aimed at improving health or reducing poverty. (I remember once trying to get the Gates Foundation to admit that one of their projects failed. I would argue it did fail, but they would never say that. They would only refer to it as a “learning opportunity.”)

The Gates Foundation is also paying a significant number of media to cover matters of global health and development. I’ve written about this trend a few times, as have others, and have mixed feelings about it.

I appreciate that the philanthropy supports media covering these neglected issues. And I have so far found little evidence that the Gates Foundation has ever told any of its media beneficiaries what to cover or how to cover it.

But simply saying you want “success stories” could be enough to cause a problem, a distortion. Sometimes the biggest errors are those of omission – the stories not told.

So, despite having just celebrated our nation’s break from the British, let’s all welcome Brit Jeremy Hillman to Seattle. And let’s hope Hillman brings with him, and to the Gates Foundation, the same conviction for communicating the good, bad and even the ugly.


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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.