How quality reporting will improve your health

  • Melissa Meyer - 23 April 2013

New Mail&Guardian health journalism centre takes a fresh focus on the vital importance of quality health news.

People rely heavily on the news to form opinions – be it on politics, the market or whether or not coffee really is bad for you. Often those opinions go on to inform actions or instead motivate inaction. These decisions ultimately have consequences – for our careers, our finances and often our health.

It is a simple chain of events that makes it quite clear why accurate, reliable and unbiased news is so important.

Yet when it is time to compile our weekly news monitoring and analysis newsletter, there seems to be no shortage of less than average reporting and we find ourselves repeatedly cautioning against the potential pitfalls of poor health journalism.

But we do not stop at simply lamenting the state of health journalism. A large part of our work at the HIV&AIDS Media Project entails finding ways of supporting the media to produce quality HIV coverage. Still, this is an effort from the outside-in and ultimately we rely heavily on the commitment and enthusiasm of those who seek our support.

This then is why it is so encouraging to see a commitment to quality health coverage coming from a newspaper and spearheaded by journalists themselves.

With mounting deadline pressure and dwindling resources reporters are churning out mostly superficial “he said, she said” coverage. The quality health news story has become a rarity.

In a climate of quantity above quality, it is also the reputation of journalists that is at stake. When insufficient time and resources are put towards scrutinising a scientific claim, or a reporter does not have the specialist training or support to adequately unpack a complex story, the journalist and the newspaper take the hit.

A well-balanced article empowers readers to make informed decisions. Successfully reporting a complex health story requires a carefully honed skill and this should be considered a tremendous achievement.

The new Bhekisisa health journalism centre may go a long way towards enshrining professional pride among health journalists and recognising the astonishing degree of influence they have over people’s health.

We welcome this development at journaids and look forward to writing more analyses on the positive impact of good health reporting than ones bemoaning the dangers of uncritical coverage.

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“In a climate of quantity above quality, it is also the reputation of journalists that is at stake”