Tag Archives: global health

Gates’ funding of journalism raises ethical questions

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

In our coverage of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s report on the present and future of the global health beat, we noted the influx of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s largesse ($1 billion in the past decade) [correction] into that particular sphere of the health journalism world. The foundation has gone beyond supporting the training for journalists to now funding specific reporting enterprises – such as a recent ABC News special “on an incubator to boost preemie survival in Africa and a new machine to diagnose tuberculosis in the developing world.”

Now, Seattle Times reporters Sandi Doughton and Kristi Heim look at the logical question brought about by all that money: “Does Gates funding of media taint objectivity?

I don’t think there’s a journalist among us who will be able to resist reading the whole thing, if only to see just how much certain organizations have been given and which stories the foundation has been pushing. Nonetheless, I’ll run through a few of the highlights.

The Seattle Times reporters touch on some high-profile pieces funded through partnerships between the foundation and top media organizations, but write that the Gates effect runs much deeper than investigations that say “Funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation” at the end. After all, they write, “The Gates Foundation spends more on policy and advocacy than most big foundations — including Rockefeller and MacArthur — spend in total.” It accounts for a tenth of their annual $3 billion budget.

To garner attention for the issues it cares about, the foundation has invested millions in training programs for journalists. It funds research on the most effective ways to craft media messages. Gates-backed think tanks turn out media fact sheets and newspaper opinion pieces. Magazines and scientific journals get Gates money to publish research and articles. Experts coached in Gates-funded programs write columns that appear in media outlets from The New York Times to The Huffington Post, while digital portals blur the line between journalism and spin.

As the reporters note, their sources point that that, “While the aims may be laudable, the ability of one wealthy foundation to shape public discourse is troubling to some.”

“Even if we were to satisfy ourselves that the Gates Foundation were utterly benign, it would still be worrisome that they wield such enormous propaganda power,” said Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media, culture and communications at New York University.

For their part, foundation folks say they’re trying to raise the profile of undercovered issues, not manipulate the world’s media.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure people understand not just the need, but the opportunity, to make a huge difference in the lives of millions of people around the world,” said Joe Cerrell, who oversees the foundation’s policy, advocacy and communications work in Europe. “For us, it’s about making sure that these stories get told.”

For a more critical take, see Humanosphere blogger Tom Paulson’s review. In addition, David Jacobs, director of foundation information management at the Foundation Center, raises the question of whether it’s ethical for media outlets to accept donations from large foundations whose activities they may have to scrutinize one day.

Oh, and by the way, the reporters write, “The Seattle Times received a $15,000 Gates grant through Seattle University for a series of stories on homelessness in 2010.”

Update:

Christopher Williams, senior communications officer of The Gates Foundation, has written to Covering Health to clarify: “In fact, the foundation has spent approximately $50 million on media grants and partnerships over the past decade. We have spent approximately $1 billion on all advocacy efforts, for all of the issues that are important to the foundation. This includes research, policy work, and other advocacy of our issues that is not necessarily media focused.”

Global health journalism, a beat in flux

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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” report.global-journalism

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.

The health highlights of two years of Guardian data

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

In two years, the Guardian’s data blog has published more than 600 data sets. I know this because, thanks to their nifty summary post, I just browsed the full list. In addition to more than a few UK analogues to the sort of stuff we see from AHRQ and NCHS, such as UK life expectancy, birth rates and aging populations and public spending, they’ve also got the sort of global health stuff that any journalist or blogger could pull out and use in a post tomorrow. I’ve collected some of my favorites and tried to strike a good balance between unique stuff and broad-spectrum, widely available global health data.

And finally, for no particular reason, here’s the outcome of every freedom of information request ever filed by the BBC. Also in the category of “data for curious journalists/insiders”? Several years of UK libel cases.

Reporter looks at black infant mortality in Wis.

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Crocker Stephenson took a look at disparities in infant mortality in that area and explored both their cases and ramifications. In Wisconsin, black babies die at twice the rate of white babies, a finding which may just be the tip of the iceberg. For national and international comparisons, see the companion infographic. According to Stephenson, infant mortality rates are an early indicator of a community’s degeneration. When mortality rises, so do other dire indicators.

The bottom third – the group of ZIP codes with the most poverty and lowest college graduation rates – had the highest infant mortality rate.

It also had the highest premature death rate, chlamydia rate, HIV rate and teen birthrate.

It had the greatest percentage of low birth weights; preterm births; uninsured adults; people who hadn’t seen a dentist in a year; births to mothers who received no prenatal care during their first trimester; smokers; pregnant smokers; obesity; violent assaults within the past year; single-parent households; and children who tested positive for lead poisoning.

Milwaukee’s health commissioner called it a “crisis,” one that Stephenson found is as much a social matter as it is one of access to proper care. For more, see the “Problem Areas” section of the story.

International cooperative to share health data

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Writing that “the importance of data sharing in advancing health is becoming increasingly widely recognised,” 17 major public health players entities, from the CDC and AHRQ to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and the World Bank, have banded together to form a sort of data cooperative around the Wellcome Trust and the Hewlett foundation. In a Lancet commentary announcing the initiative, Wellcome director Mark Walport and Hewlett president Paul Brest write that, while fields such as genetics and molecular biology, a mature data-sharing system has sped up discoveries and increased efficiency, public health is lagging behind.

Much of the infrastructures, technical standards, and incentives that are needed to support data sharing are lacking, and these data can hold particular sensitivities. And some researchers are reluctant to share data. Too often, data are treated as the private property of investigators who aim to maximise their publication record at the expense of the widest possible use of the data. This situation threatens to limit both the progress of this research and its application for public health benefit.

Each organization will work within its own structure and their initial goals include the creation of data standards to facilitate sharing as well as increasing the prestige of creating public data sets. They acknowledge there will be some bumps along the way, but call on other organizations to join the initiative and to pursue the long-term goal of the widespread, fair and privacy-respecting sharing of public health data.

ABC News launches global health project

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Tonight at 10 Eastern, ABC News anchor Dianne Sawyer will host “Be the Change: Save a Life,” a program which will profile “innovative” solutions to global health problems across Asia and Africa. To accompany what is planned to be a yearlong effort, ABC News is launching saveone.net, a site which will be updated throughout the year with information on health issues in developing nations. That reporting will be combined with the request implicit in the program’s “Be the Change” title and a site which blurs the lines between journalism and activism.

The heart of the network’s online call to action is a page referring readers to specific charity efforts and encouraging them to donate. All the project donations are hosted by GlobalGiving.org, an organization which says it pre-screens grassroots charity efforts.

(Hat tip to Media Bistro’s WebNewser)