Global health journalism, a beat in flux

If it’s 32 pages on the present and future of journalism and major global health issues you seek, look no further than the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Taking the Temperature: The Future of Global Health Journalism (PDF). The paper’s authors, Nellie Bristol and John Donnelly, interviewed 51 reporters, editors, freelancers and producers from across the media landscape and assembled their findings into a sort of “state of the industry”

Their report opens with a bit of a paradox. At the very moment that the news industry in general and global health coverage in particular is on the decline worldwide, overall funding for global health has surged, thanks in large part to the American federal government and high-profile private organizations like the Gates Foundation. That isn’t to say, of course, that those organizations have been absent from the media arena either.

In fact, throughout the course of the report, you can’t help but notice just how many global health reporting efforts are funded by public media or Gates and company. Thanks to these funds and the evolution of media in the United States, the global health reporting landscape seems to be shifting as more journalists exit the discipline and more purpose-driven organizations slide in to take their places. Furthermore, these new pressures, both positive and negative, have arrived alongside a shift in the focus of the beat itself.

Many interviewees noted that increasingly, stories they covered tended towards infectious disease outbreaks, like influenza, and disaster related health issues. This was not only a resource issue, but what some saw as story fatigue or lack of fresh angles on health stories in developing countries, especially related to HIV/AIDS. Many, though not all, found policy angles, such as U.S. government efforts to improve global health, difficult to incorporate into their stories, much less serve as a focal point.

Major news organizations like The Associated Press and New York Times have shuttered foreign bureaus and tightened their travel budgets, and the funds allocated for freelancers are falling across the board.

The current financial reality for many global health freelancers, whose work is viewed as filling the gap created by media staff reductions, is pretty grim. Samuel Loewenberg who has written on global health issues for publications ranging from The New York Times to The Lancet, said freelance rates for many publications have fallen. Arthur Allen, a former AP staff writer and now an author and freelancer, said a prominent online publication recently dropped its rate from $1,000 to $500 a story. Another pays $300 a story. “I asked why they are decreasing payment and they say, ‘Some people are writing for nothing,’” Allen said. “It’s a hobby for people who have other gigs. …Certainly doctors and lawyers have a lot to say about things, but it’s difficult for people like me who are journalists.”

As an interesting aside, The Boston Globe has replaced those traditional coverage extenders, travel and freelance, with something more direct: Skype and the cell phones that are now commonplace in even the more remote bits of the planet.

Amid the tales of industry-wide retreat that fill the report, there’s one clear bright spot: academic and professional journals. The authors found journal staffers to be particularly optimistic about their profession and optimistic about the future.

Medical, science and health policy journals have expanded their global health reach, supported both by grants and a larger global health professional audience. While the journals’ primary purpose is to publish research, several also now offer news columns or field-based reporting that focus on global health.

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