Introduction by Croakey: We have previously published extensively on the decline of Australia’s media landscape, including the concentration of media ownership, the failure to regulate digital platforms, the lack of diversity and support for Indigenous media, and the demise of specialist journalism and local.
We believe these factors have resulted in lower quality reporting on health issues and undermine Australia’s ability to address serious health threats such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is also particularly important in an electoral context where lack of diversity and poor reporting on health issues (and other policies) do not allow voters to make informed choices, undermining the democratic process.
Responding constructively to criticism and reflecting on your own biases is an important part of being a journalist or commentator, but it doesn’t happen often enough. A recent exception is the ‘mea culpa’ by economist Jason Murphy following an article he wrote in Crikey last week.
While social media clearly diverts some of the attention from traditional media, this recent article by The conversation argued that the mainstream media still has a significant influence on the outcome of Australian elections. write in The Guardian, Adam Morton described an example of how this is happening in the current election, with News Corp twisting a Labor campaign pledge on renewables.
These concerns are not unique to Australia or even particularly new; American journalism professor Jay Rosen has written extensively about “horses race” journalism, which trivializes the political process by presenting it as a game or a sporting event.
In the interest of a more informed election debate on health, the Croakey writers have compiled these tips and pitfalls for the media and reporters.
Jennifer Doggett, Tess Ryan and Melissa Sweet write:
1. Include multiple perspectives
Most health issues are complex and it is important to include more than one perspective when reporting health issues. In particular, consider including the perspectives of people who use health care. They often have a very different experience of health policies, programs and services than providers. The voices of people with lived experience are so important that they often raise issues typically overlooked in health coverage, such as transportation difficulties in accessing health care, and safety and quality issues, including the importance of cultural safety.
2. First Nations First
When journalists consciously put First Peoples first when reporting on health issues, it opens the door to including multiple cultural perspectives, rather than centering monocultural approaches. Indigenous knowledge and thought have so much to offer in health care and health policy more generally, including supporting more holistic understandings of health and well-being that help us move beyond purely biomedical responses to problems. complex health. Improving health and health care is rarely as simple as a one-size-fits-all solution, such as access to medicine. It also involves taking care of the country and considering planetary health.
3. Prioritize underrepresented voices
When seeking alternative perspectives on health issues, prioritize the voices of those currently underserved by politics and health policy, for example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people with disabilities, people with mental illnesses, people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, people living in rural and remote areas, the elderly, people in prison and people with low incomes. Too often these groups are ignored by the mainstream media and have to do their own journalism to make their voices heard, for example in this article by writer El Gibbs.
4. Don’t just include doctors
Physicians are an important provider group, but only one of many. Consider including the perspectives of other health care providers such as nurses, pharmacists, paramedics, indigenous health workers, and public health professionals. When including a medical perspective, consider the most appropriate medical group or expert to contact. The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has a high profile but it does not represent the majority of doctors (only around 30% of practicing doctors). Medical schools have greater expertise than the AMA in their specialty areas and are often more representative of the views of physicians in their particular field. Other physician groups worth consideration include the Doctors Reform Society and the Rural Doctors Association of Australia. Physicians working in academia as teachers and researchers may offer a more independent perspective than those affiliated with a specific professional interest group.
5. Dig deeper
Current health debates are not taking place in a vacuum. There is a long history behind most of the health issues discussed during the election campaign and most of the political solutions on the table have been proposed or tried in the past in one form or another. Understanding the context of a current policy or funding commitment provides important perspective for reporting on these issues. Don’t just take politicians’ announcements at face value and reproduce press releases from interest groups without challenging them. Ask deeper questions: Is this a new announcement/new funding? Is the funding amount annual or for a longer period? What is the need for these expenses? Are there alternatives to the proposal that would be more efficient/effective? What role did interest groups play in influencing this announcement? What is the history of this problem? Is it well targeted? If you don’t know the answer, ask an expert.
6. Value specialization in journalism
Health is always one of the priority issues designated by voters at election time. It is also a major investment of public resources and an area over which governments have great influence. The media plays an important role in providing information to the community about health election commitments and increasing the accountability of politicians and potential governments. To do this well requires the specialized knowledge and experience of health journalists. It is lost when the round of health is covered by political journalists.
7. Don’t forget climate change
One of the biggest threats to the health of our community is climate change, yet this is rarely reported in mainstream news stories on health election issues. It is important to place any election announcement in the context of the future we face with ever-increasing climate disasters and highlight how this can be mitigated through urgent action.
8. Look beyond hospitals
Hospitals are important, but they are only one of many settings in which health care is delivered. More Australians access primary healthcare in any given period than they need hospital services, but primary healthcare receives far less media coverage than hospitals during election campaigns. In addition, the policy announcements that have the greatest impact on hospitals often affect areas outside the hospital building, such as primary health care and community care for the elderly and mental health.
9. Include social and cultural determinants of health
Don’t limit health reporting to health services. The most important determinants of health lie outside the health system. Social determinants such as poverty, housing, and food insecurity will influence community health more than a new drug or hospital. Similarly, coverage of Indigenous health issues requires consideration of cultural determinants of health. Ultimately, tackling health inequalities is a matter of social justice. If journalists do not explicitly address inequalities, they risk making them worse by maintaining existing power dynamics.
10. Read Croakey and support public interest journalism
Croakey has an extensive archive of articles on all the health issues being discussed in this election campaign – check out our categories for topics like mental health and health reform, for example. These articles include diverse voices and interests and will provide valuable information about election announcements. This is especially important given today’s small and concentrated mainstream media landscape. Shrinking mainstream media budgets mean journalists often don’t have the time or resources to do more than a superficial story on many health issues. Supporting media policy reform and public interest journalism will help ensure that media organizations and journalists have the capacity to dig deeper into important health issues and provide the community with more complex and nuanced perspectives. Public interest journalism also provides a platform for less powerful and well-resourced voices to have their say on important health issues.
Examples of good and bad health reports
To illustrate our points above, we have collected some examples of recent media reports on health issues that we believe are too simplistic, lack of nuancenot include important consumers and diverse voices and ignoring major health threats like climate change.
On the other hand, we would like to salute these examples of high-quality reports that take complex and balanced approach to current health issues, include a range of underrepresented voices and center consumers rather than providers or governments when discussing social policies and programs.
We thank and acknowledge other Croakey colleagues who provided suggestions, including Associate Professor Lesley Russell and Alison Barrett. See also a selection of tweets about media coverage and the election in The Election Wrap.
To see croakeyThe Archive of Stories on Public Interest Journalism as a Determinant of Health.