Letter from the Editor: The Future of Global Health Journalism

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Sarah Arnquist
Sarah Arnquist is editor and co-founder of the Global Health Hub. She is a health policy consultant in California. Previously, she worked in global health research at Harvard University and before that as a newspaper reporter, contributing to the New York Times and other print and online publications. She has a master’s degree in public health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The Kaiser Family Foundation released a report this week that sought to understand how media coverage of global health issues is faring while the mainstream media struggles to find a successful, profit-making strategy.

The report consolidates what most of already knew: The landscape has changed, rapidly. Many journalists lament the loss of a “golden era” in global health journalism. Those of us too young to experience that gilded age, however, aren’t grieving. We never had anything to lose and are still looking for opportunities. A different landscape isn’t synonymous with a worse landscape, and frankly, more outlets exist now for people interested in writing about global health than ever before.

Based on interviews with 50 journalists, the Kaiser report authors found that in most cases, mainstream global health news coverage has shrunk. Many organizations now rely on outside donors (such as the Gates, Knight, and Kaiser foundations) to finance a project or travel. Dwindling coverage, interviewees said, was a result of budget tightening but also strategic shifts to emphasize hyper-local news and audience fatigue with stories describing poor, sick people far away.

While newspapers may be printing less about global health, the authors concluded that online “there is no shortage of information available for those who know where to look.”

The avalanche of online global health information coming from advocacy organizations, blogs, Twitter, listservs, and virtual communities makes it difficult to know where to look. That’s where the Global Health Hub can, I hope, add value.

A recent New Yorker article about AOL’s attempt to reinvent itself as a “local news provider” included a quote I really liked from David Foster Wallace in 1996. Wallace described the Internet as “a place where there are four trillion bits coming at you, 99 percent of them are shit, and it’s too much work to do triage to decide. So it’s very clear, very soon there’s gonna be an economic niche opening up for gatekeepers … because otherwise we’re gonna spend 95% of our time body-surfing through shit.”

With the Global Health Hub, I want to decrease the time people interested in global health spend wading through crap, but I also have a loftier goal, which is to facilitate dialogue among practitioners.

The global health and development “blogosphere” and online world is rich with good information, but because this space is difficult to track and let alone collect, information whizzes by without generating any sort of friction that could lead to meaningful exchange of ideas and viewpoints. My hope is that by creating a central place for this information to collide and show its collective richness, the Hub can help people appreciate and participate in this online dialogue.

The Hub launched late last fall. With help form a few dedicated volunteers, we’ve passed our first test of functionality. We have done no formal marketing or promotion and traffic is steadily increasing. We now know the Hub can aggregate, but that was only the first step. All this information needs better curation and context. This area needs considerable more attention and improvement. Like many web site operators, I embrace the idea of “always being in beta mode,” recognizing that we must continually improve in a rapidly changing landscape. If you have suggestions for improvement or ways we can provide greater value, please share them with me.

I want to end by paying my respects to the dedicated journalists fighting to get global health stories placed in their newsrooms. We need writers capable of telling stories that explain complex global health issues in a way that makes people like my grandmother understand and care. The blogosphere or an aggregation platform never will replace that need, but my grandma never will care about the gritty details of delivering global health care. The audience that does care about those details, I believe, can benefit from new models of online information delivery.

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