‘Anti-agenda’ influencing journalists’ health coverage

About Esther Paniagua

Esther Paniagua is editor in chief of the Spanish edition of Technology Review, published by MIT, and is a freelance health writer for the popular science magazine, Muy Interesante. She manages the Spanish participation in the European co-funded project HeaRT (Health Reporting Training), with support of the European Commission.

For whom does the media write? It seems a stupid question with an obvious answer. However, I wouldn’t give a categorical answer because, too often, media seem to be more interested in offering information not always in their readers’ best interests.

I call that the “anti-agenda.” Sometimes a journalist’s work is influenced too much by media owners and the main economic and political actors in the health area instead of being focused on the readers’ interests. In Spain, this takes the form of press releases from pharmaceutical firms, superficial and empty news, a great deal of free publicity related to the pharmaceutical market and powerful health companies and foundations.

We all know some of this stems from the lack of time to do a proper job and advertiser pressure, but there is another big reason. There is a scarcity of trained reporters who specialize in health who can do quality, original articles. In Europe, a recent survey conducted by the Health Reporting Training Project (HeaRT) revealed a lack of specific health skills among the health journalists. Seventy-one percent of 146 respondents from Great Britain, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece and Romania said they had no special training in reporting health stories.

Although the sample size was somewhat small, the data, the first of its kind available in Europe, begins to give us a picture of the kind of training that is needed. I believe these results reinforce the idea that journalists are increasingly internalizing the thematic priorities of the “anti-agenda.” Take, for example, their preferences for further specialized training focused on political and economic issues and medical research instead of topics such as the workings of publicly funded health care and health disparities.

How can we explain this if one of our jobs is to write about health coverage and inequalities in access to health services?

Francisco Cañizares, president of the Spanish Healthcare Journalists Association (ANIS), says that too often health journalism addresses superficial issues. That is because the work of health reporters often appears in society sections of newspapers and magazines. “Journalists see these issues as tangential and are not attracted by them,” Cañizares says.

He says that, although in theory patients are the focus of health systems and the raison d’être of our profession, in practice they are the last link in the chain. “In that sense, patients don’t set the journalists’ agenda. Politics and other agents such as scientific societies and laboratories and, in some cases, the advertising interests of the media do”, Cañizares argues.

He explains that, in Spain, it has been common for some magazines to publish a report on a disease that is treated by the medicines advertised in the same edition. “Unfortunately, with the economic crisis, this bad practice has been extended to some newspaper supplements”, he said.

Cañizares says it is essential to introduce an enforceable code of ethics for journalists and the media.

“Readers are entitled to know whether the information provided to them is influenced by other interests than their own.”

Obviously training provided through the HeaRT project workshops will help.

Leave a Reply