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Reporting Public Health

K V Venkatasubramanian |

Media coverage on public health issues is largely “news”-oriented and event-based. This is especially so in the case of Routine Immunisation, according to a media analysis of English national dailies and language press conducted, in association with UNICEF, in 2014.

Reporting in news media requires evidence-based quality reports on Routine Immunisation, including adverse effects following immunization (AEFI). There needs to be a concerted effort to encourage populations to take part actively in RI without fear.

To address the imbalance in health reporting, UNICEF held several rounds of consultations with eminent editors, journalists and academicians over the past one year. It was agreed that journalists, specifically in various districts across the country, need to be sensitised about the real health issues and how misreporting can have an adverse effect on RI, particularly in rural and far-flung regions, where villagers are illiterate. Negative reporting createsfrightamong rural populationwho become averse to getting their children immunised. Also, it has a cascading effect leading to scare mongering among rural masses.

Most importantly, it was concluded that journalists should be trained in critical appraisal skills. Further, a start should be made at the university level itself so that media students are imparted skills and training in public health reporting, which has been absent so far.

Resultantly, a series of initiatives and steps were formulated. Among these were to conduct courses and workshops for budding journalists, mid-career journalists and editors–both from the English and language press—and also government officials.

A first-of-its-kind Certificate Course in Critical Appraisal Skills (CASP) for Public Health Journalism and Communication in India was launched in September jointly by UNICEF India, the University of Oxford, Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Thomson Reuters Foundation and the George Institute of Global Health. The course is based on a strong module in the context of the present public health landscape in India—created by experts from the above institutions. Being offered to public health reporters in the UK, it has been adapted for Indian media professionals, under the GAVI-Health System Strengthening Plan 2014-16. The skill-set being provided through this course will specifically support participants in producing evidence-based quality reports on Routine Immunisation. (AEFI).

The Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) has contributed tothe streamlining of the CASP course to suit participants in India. It hostedapilot programme for 40 students from September 18 to 20. To give them a holistic idea about ground level realities, the students were taken on a daylong field immersion visits to Gurgaon, Pataudi andDundahera on October 31. The IIMC is also holding week-end programmes on CASP at its premises.

A four-day training programme was held for 51 journalists from 12 States at Gurgaon from October 27 to 30. Participants were briefed about the health scenario in the country with reference to Mission Indradhanush. During the various interactive sessions, experts stressed on the importance of producing quality health stories, ethical appraisal while writing and selling them to the Editor.

The takeawaysincluded: Besides content, context is also the king. Health stories needed to be dealt with proper attention as journalists are second peer reviewers. Validity, authenticity and science play a major role while writing. Trainers said evidence-based reporting was crucial in public health reporting.

The CASP course will now cover government officials and editors from different media streams.

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