When it comes to bogus health reporting and policy, it really is a small world

Science-ish reports from Ethiopia

Getty Images

The morning started late at the United Nations conference centre in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. On the gated compound—surrounded by muddy roads, and a mash-up of steel huts, unfinished buildings and Western-style hotels—it was day one of a World Health Organization forum about how to get better evidence into health policy-making.

Science-ish had travelled to the Horn of Africa to talk about the role media can play in divulging information about health research and holding policymakers to account when they ignore or misuse it.

The room suddenly filled with some 50 delegates from all over Africa and the world—Zambia, Nigeria, Malawi, the U.S., Great Britain, the Sudan. Most of them have been working for the better part of the last decade on tools and methods to ensure that high-quality research gets out of the ivory tower and makes its way into policy and the realm of public knowledge.

After the translators readied themselves to connect us through our many languages, the meeting began. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it quickly became clear that reporters and researchers working on getting the evidence message across in this region face a number of unique challenges. One journalist from Ethiopia asked about how to start a national professional group for reporters because none exists here and the state controls the media. A researcher from South Africa said reporters in her country routinely botch health stories because there are few dedicated journalists who understand the beat. A Sudanese health columnist told Science-ish that everything she writes has to be vetted by government officials before it goes to print; words they don’t like get cut. “I will still write it anyway,” she said defiantly, adding that the government of Omar al-Bashir recently sanctioned a colleague for speaking out. “Now he sits in the corner of the newsroom, silent.”

Still, what emerged from our international exchange is that, no matter where we are based, there are a number of common challenges we all seem to stumble upon when reporting on health and health policy. Here are the main problems we grappled with, along with some ideas about how to fix them:

1. Health reporters often sensationalize research.
“When a dog bites a man, it’s not news. When a man bites a dog, it’s news.” The old adage about journalism holds true everywhere, said one reporter from Nigeria. However, he added, in some 20 years as a health reporter, he has worked hard to earn the trust of researchers and his audience and would be embarrassed to blow unworthy stories out of context. “Building trust through competence” and having a close network of contacts means journalists may be less likely to write a story that really isn’t one because it could spoil their relationship with their sources. Health researchers also explored the idea of reaching out to and tipping off journalists they admire, regardless of their beat. This way, there might be a better chance science will be reported robustly and within context. Science-ish added that, with any type of reporting, it’s worth flagging when other media are running with stories that are inaccurate or oversold.

2. There aren’t enough resources to do in-depth health reporting.
The publishing industry is in transition, resources are scarce, and health budgets have been cut. This is a challenge for both the developed and developing world. One workaround: Journalists can seek grants and fellowships for health reporting, and use them to pursue the projects their newsrooms can’t fund. For example, there’s the Kaiser Media Fellowship in Health, and the World Federation of Science Journalists also offers funding for journalists, as does CIHR in Canada.

3.  Researchers don’t trust journalists.
As one delegate put it, “The two-community rule is still true.” Journalists and researchers seem to inhabit different worlds and they don’t mingle enough. But, as another delegate said, they need to learn how to get along for the sake of better health reporting. The reporters in the room said that, while they don’t want researchers to dumb things down, they sometimes need help to understand research. They asked that researchers try to make themselves available for interviews as well as providing background information. Some of the researchers at the conference seemed to know this already. As one of them explained, he feels guilty when he doesn’t respond to media requests, lest journalists misreport some key bit of information just because he didn’t volunteer his time. The researchers, on the other hand, had qualms about journalists often neglecting to fact-check their pieces before they hit the presses (or the tubes).

4. Researchers don’t get credit for the time they put into speaking with journalists.
One Ph.D. from South Africa noted that talking to the media might well be a duty but it takes up a lot of time. Researchers should get something in return. Her solution has been to list her media engagement activities on her CV, and explain to her university why speaking to the journalists is an important part of her service to society. Another researcher from Scotland said that the U.K. will be piloting a systems-level solution to this problem in 2014, when a new “impact measurement” for research will give credit to scientists for their media engagement or even social media efforts rather than simply looking at their publications in peer-reviewed journals.

5. Health policies do not reflect what the best-available evidence says.
All over the world, it seems, there’s a gulf between what scientists know about a certain issue, and action on the problem by policymakers and journalists. (More on this in the next installment.) Conference-goers suggested researchers create tools—fact boxes, data visualizations, evidence summaries—that respond to or debunk poor health policies or inaccurate statements by public figures as soon as they hit the news. To Science-ish, this sounded like a great idea.

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’s, the Medical Post and the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is the associate editor at the Medical Post. Got a tip? Seen something that’s Science-ish? Message her at j[email protected] or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.