Journalism and health

01. Introduction to health issues /

More than ever before, health issues are taking center stage at the global level. From major discoveries and innovations (for example fetal therapy) to the most tragic health crises (the Ebola and Covid-19 epidemics), health journalists have been able to prove the crucial role they play.

They carry out their mission to inform people of epidemic prevention issues in Africa and to cover health issues in conflict areas in the Middle East.

Journalists lay out and explain to the general public a large number of topics related to individual health or global health, while playing a social and health role among the population at the local and international levels.

The health journalist both clarifies and simplifies complex concepts, he acts as a pedagogue / actor and creates awareness amongst the masses. He also acts as whistleblower, as was the case with Hopwell Chin’ono who recently exposed corruption-related scandals in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic in Zimbabwe.

The health journalist is keen to provide reliable and objective information as much as possible, information that is not subject to any financial, advertising or political pressures. This burden may be heavy for him because any mistake on his part could have dire consequences on the health of his followers.

One of the characteristics that distinguish a health journalist is that he plays an important role in simplifying and explaining scientific concepts. This means that he communicates to the general public scientific and medical information that may be of great complexity.

Therefore, he can be described as a vector of information, and a link between scientific researchers, doctors and the general public. That is why he must have access to a large number of reliable sources, understand practical news and seek information from trusted experts.

He must also be proficient in the tools used for simplifying and explaining complex concepts so that ordinary citizens, who are not familiar with scientific matters, can understand the information they provide, but without falling into oversimplification.

This role may be difficult because the journalist is often working on a tight deadline that does not correspond to the time spent on scientific research.

This role is also difficult because the topics they deal with are usually greatly varied and fall within multiple disciplines such as physiology, anatomy, biology, pharmacy, psychology, and other medical specialties (from oncology to gynaecology …), as well as statistics and general health.

They must become familiar with these varied and complex topics in record time – without being an expert in them.

And he must be able to approach them seamlessly and smoothly, whether by asking the right questions to the specialists he chooses, ever so meticulously, and by conveying the answer he is provided with, with great accuracy and sincerity, taking into account the audience’s qualifications and register.

A health journalist faces another hurdle: his area is connected with many specialisations within human and social sciences. Indeed, healthcare and treatment are closely linked to economic, political, social, cultural, ethical and religious issues. Consequently, it is impossible for them to discuss sexual or reproductive health in a country characterised by a patriarchal culture, like Lebanon, in the same way that they do in a country characterized by a matriarchal culture, like Korea.

Therefore, familiarity with health and scientific issues may not always be sufficient.This especially applies to everything related to:

  • Medicines, especially as they present great economic and industrial challenges
  • Hospital care and treatment procedures that are subject to political and economic measures
  • Gynaecology, which includes assisted fertilisation techniques, contraception, induced abortion, female circumcision … which usually is associated with society, culture and religion.
  • Immunisation or vaccines that raise social and economic issues
  • ‘Traditional’ medicine that needs to be understood and assimilated in a specific cultural context – for example the Indian national government that promotes the traditional Indian Ayurveda treatment

Nowadays, as health crises have become an integral part of our daily life, the health journalist has become compelled to cover urgent developments and news and is obligated to deliver his articles on the same day, while tight deadlines hadn’t necessarily been of the essence in the past.

It is very likely that health journalists will remain at the forefront of news in the coming months and years. Consequently, more than ever, they will have to keep their intellectual and writing capabilities at the highest possible level in order to remain able to carry out their pedagogical role effectively.

This group of videos aims to provide you with necessary elements that will allow you to treat various health topics in the best way.

A CFI project in partnership with France Médias Monde

Logos CFI et France Médias Monde