Journalism and health

06. Gathering information /

Let’s continue our exploration of  the health-related media coverage, and tackle the topic of gathering information. This issue involves a somewhat different method as its sources differ from the ones used in standard media.

Although the health journalist uses direct testimonials and interviews, this practice is becoming increasingly of minor relevance.

In general, health journalists produce their stories by relying on 4 types of resources:

  • News agencies’ reports, be it expert or generalised content,
  • Interviews with specialists (doctors, researchers and other experts), news reports and other news outlets’ findings,
  • News conferences.
  • And finally, scientific reports, both independent and collective ones, published in websites such as

We conducted some interviews with a few professionals to find out how they gather information and how they choose them.

Hanane Rbeiss is a reporter and a teacher at the Institut de Presse et des Sciences de l’Information in Tunis.

Olivier Marbot, he’s been a reporter for 20 years and was previously editor in chief of the satirical magazine “Ciné Hebdo” and is currently a journalist at “La Revue”, a bimonthly magazine and a publication of Jeune Afrique.

Caroline Paré, journalist and host of the radio show “Priorité Santé” on RFI.

Use multiple sources to identify, verify and validate information

1/ The field

Caroline Paré – Journalist – RFI – France

In Africa we seek to be on the field 4 to 5 times, and we attend conferences in France. When we host shows in Africa, we always visit Healthcare centres and hospitals and meet with healthcare workers and check to what extent patients are provided care. We get the information on the ground from doctors, researchers, university students or humanitarian workers.

2/ Institutional sources

Olivier Marbot – Journalist – Jeune Afrique – France

My first source of information is generally the WHO, not because I like to re-publishing their evidence but because they have a continental vision which is of interest to us reporters.

The WHO and Africa CDC are institutional structures we like to approach.

3/ Scientific reports

Hanene Zbiss – Journalist CFI – Tunisia

My resources also include websites that feature scientific reports like Research Gate and Publimed.

4/ Official internet sites

Caroline Paré – Journalist – RFI – France

I get information from l’Agence nationale de sécurité du médicament or ANSM and Santé Publique France which send us epidemiological studies.

5/ Associations

Caroline Paré – Journalist – RFI – France

We also turn to associations, for instance La Ligue contre le Cancer, or organisations defending women rights. A great many associations send us their communication material.

6/ The medical and general press

Caroline Paré – Journalist – RFI – France

One other very important source: books. We receive a lot of those from health-related news services.

Digital copies of specialised health magazines are also a reliable resource for us, for instance The Lancet, or NEJM, New England Journal of Medecine. 

7/ Social networks

Hanene Zbiss – Journalist CFI – Tunisie

Social media is also a source of information, for instance private groups involving doctors or medical representatives where we can find statements via Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, sometimes also via Whatsapp.

Protect your sources and ensure the veracity of testimonies

1/ Gather evidence

Olivier Marbot – Journalist – Jeune Afrique – France

I often visited waiting rooms in hospitals, of the cardiac surgery clinic in Dakar and I used to simply talk to people: “Hello, I am a journalist, do you mind if we talk?” Generally, they don’t mind.

2/ Check the reliability of evidence

Hanene Zbiss – Journalist CFI – Tunisie

To get testimonials from people who request anonymity or from victims of the health system, I usually contact doctors I previously interviewed who could lead me to those individuals, or I connect with medical associations and sometimes I use social media.

3/ Respect anonymous witnesses

Caroline Paré – Journalist – RFI – France

The person will, at first, have a discussion with us, we would establish trust along the way, and at the end, quite surprisingly, the person often says “I said too much, please don’t mention my name”.

This happens with women who are victims of violence, who would say “I am calling from Lomé” but would actually be calling from Cotonou, for fear of their family’s reaction if they ever hear the conversation.

We publish their views in complete anonymity, we put no photos on the website, it’s like a mutual agreement that I always fully respect.

Hanene Zbiss – Journalist CFI – Tunisie

Sometimes, the person who shares her views is a healthcare worker or has a delicate position in the health sector and wouldn’t want to be associated with the opinion published in the report.

So, we respect the person’s will and refrain from compromising their position or getting them fired.

Rely on experts according to certain criteria 

1/ Favour personal networks 

Hanene Zbiss – Journalist CFI – Tunisie

We often fall into the classic dilemma; were they interviewed everywhere, or not? If so, this would confirm their credibility, their reputation and makes the story easier to sell, although it can lose its originality.

It’s all about finding a balance.

2/ Analyse profile

Olivier Marbot – Journalist – Jeune Afrique – France

I rely on a list of experts I previously dealt or worked with, even if they are not experts in the field I am investigating, they can nonetheless provide recommendations.

I also rely on experts who often speak to the media. They often display eloquence during their media appearances and they know how to convey a scientific message

3/ Promote popularization of the subject

Caroline Paré – Journalist – RFI – France

To find an interviewee, the main criteria is to focus on “public health” angle, instead of targeting a specific audience. When treating a cancer topic for instance, we should mention general access to care, and avoid focusing on the latest innovative treatments with regard to a specific issue.

One should have a global vision, and be capable of adapting a statement made, for instance, by an established researcher in a first-class health system such as the ones in our industralised countries.

The reporter should understand the mentalities in the southern hemisphere, where the audience is less discerning.

4/ Master your topic

Olivier Marbot – Journalist – Jeune Afrique – France

The advice I would give when choosing interviewees such as doctors and researchers is to collect information beforehand and prepare ahead the story’s topic.

These people have specific concerns and follow a precise methodology, and they value proofs and protocols.

One should not act very assertive or too spontaneous, asking random questions. It is inefficient and might get their interviewees to become defensive.

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