Fusing journalism and TB – telling the stories as they are

What makes a good health story?

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What makes a good health story? This is a question that has often confounded me. Writing health stories, fraught as it is with challenges of getting access to the stories themselves, collecting the data, and getting them commissioned, is a daunting task. Added to which is the fact that media space for health stories is shrinking if not non-existent. And yet, health, or the lack of it is an important piece in the jigsaw of human development and needs to be written about.

Writing on health, means telling compelling stories that will engage the reader enough to identify with them and want to act. It means going behind the numbers. For instance, if India has a staggering 2 million deaths owing to TB every year, it is not only the figures, but the human lives behind the figures that become important. Where are these figures coming from? Are they urban or rural people? How do they live? What do they eat? Why are they falling sick? All these have linkages to each other and to larger life issues and without these linkages, we have mere reports and not stories. That makes a huge canvas for a health journalist to fill.

Consider the challenges. First, reporting on health is associated with myriad complexities. The information we put out has to be accurate and simple enough for the lay reader to comprehend. This is not easy because a health story has to include medical terms which are difficult to understand and use in the right context. The subtle difference between incidence and prevalence for example is significant and the terms need to be used correctly. While writing a story on childhood TB, the doctors I spoke to often used the terms pauci-bacillary, AFB etc. I spent anxious moments trying to use them in the right context because I am just a journalist and not a doctor. And remember, journalists are up against deadlines!!

Second, there are two clear parts to a holistic health story. There are the human elements and the hard facts, and journalists need both at the same time regardless of whether they are reporting from the field or from conferences. Journalists are often confounded and befuddled by figures and studies presented through power points at conferences. They then tear their hair apart trying to make enough sense of them to file a readable story. While reporting from the field upwards, they have the human stories but fusing it with the bits that can hold it together is difficult.

Consider the following slides; the first from a conference, the other from the field:

By themselves, neither of these can be used for advocacy. The first dealt only with figures and failed to show the humans behind them. The second merely gave a glimpse into the story of a child’s life. It could at best kindle a bit of sympathy. Neither gave a complete picture. So it is up to a journalist to knit these two elements together. Third, a story makes complete sense only when it reflects the voices of several stakeholders.

Who are the stakeholders to a health story? If the story is about childhood TB for instance, it would obviously first be the child who is affected. But the doctor who is treating the child would be equally important. And this is not enough. The numbers are important because readers want to know how severe the problem is. This is a tough one. Where do we get simple, easy to use numbers? Alongside is the India profile from the WHO website and the data is complex enough to give one sleepless nights!! Interested agencies would be well advised to post special factfiles on their websites, that are relevant for the media and which journalists can decipher and use at short notice. This would serve their cause much better and make our lives simpler!

Further, access to pathologists and radiologists is important because childhood TB diagnosis is a problem. We need experts who can give context and credibility to a story. What the head of a government TB programme says is much more important and credible than what a journalist is saying. That is quite a big wish list. Do we get all of this? Sometimes yes, most often no.

It is absolutely imperative for a journalist to have quick and ready access to experts, professionals, policy makers, activists and grassroots workers. What we need is networks where journalists are equal stakeholders and actively participate in the process of change. We need people to speak with us and not to us. We also need time and effort to be invested in building our knowledge so that we can then write informed, useful articles on health.

I also want to make a distinction here between training and knowledge building. Journalists do not need training on how to write; most of them have reasonably good writing skills and can pull a story together with ease. What they really need is regular interaction with those who know the latest developments, trends, the terminology, and all the other technicalities. I mean the hard stuff about the disease which is so difficult to understand and yet, so vital to write about.

Even if all this is made possible, and there is a good story on hand, I still hosted a party than no one came to, because the truth is that TB does not make news. Speaking of the Indian context, I have it from editors that the urban reader who reads English newspapers does not want to read about TB or other diseases, which are, right or wrong, perceived as diseases of the poor. And therefore these stories are killed. But the good news also is that less than 15 per cent of India’s population reads English newspapers. This means that 85 per cent of the population – a large section of which is ‘poor’ reads vernacular papers and these are still open to us. Currently very little attention is paid to building the capacities of this very vital space. This has to change. And change has to happen fast. There is no time to waste.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

JATB is grateful to the mother of little Sushil (name changed) for letting us use his story in the slide above. Sunil (13), is HIV positive and TB has ravaged his stomach, brain and lungs. Though intensive treatment has helped, there were diagnostic problems. He is presently on ART as well as TB medication. At times, when he is suffering from more than one opportunistic infection (OI), the regimen is intense. His treatment at the charitable SEWA Clinic in Bangalore is supported by Milana, a group that helps families affected by HIV and AIDS.

Written by JournalistsAgainstTB

May 1, 2011 at 11:44 am

Posted in TB and Media

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