Health has never been an issue in India. It has not been a priority for the people, and neither has it ever been an election issue – barring an occasional mention in the manifestos of political parties during election time.
It has been the same in the field of journalism. Health is a `beat’ that no one wants to cover – or at least it was so until a decade ago. And, there was a `valid’ reason given for it: A health reporter would never make it to the Editor’s chair. It is still believed that only political reporters make to the top post. Honestly, we have not had any health reporters who have become Editors. But then, we hardly had any dedicated health reporters in major newspapers until recently except a handful of honourable exceptions.
While some newspapers now have health reporters, regional newspapers still have none despite the fact that health impacts each one of us. Media coverage on public health issues is large event-based, particularly when the news is bad because `good news is no news’ for journalists—at least in the health sector. Even worse, health news or any social sector news competes with advertisements. A rich advertisement will have a better chance of replacing a health story.
Under the scenario, the launch of the online version of the `Critical Appraisal Skills’ course for health journalists is a much-needed step in the right direction.
As a practitioner of journalism specialising in public health, I am aware of the huge gap that exists when it comes to training reporters on health issues. Not many journalism schools have specialised courses on health, hence, this initiative by UNICEF, Oxford University, Indian Institute of Mass Communication and Thomson Reuters Foundation deserves appreciation, and with a hope that the course if adopted by journalism schools and even media houses for better health reporting.
Having had the privilege of being associated with the course right the beginning, I am privy to the hard work that has gone into producing this valuable document. Beginning with a survey on health reporting in India in 2014 to the launch of the online course, it has been a story of collaborations, agreements and disagreements, days of discussions and deliberations, as well as involvement of journalism students in the pilot to ensure smooth roll-out.
When I was asked to contribute, I was a little unsure of what my contribution would be—as were the other journalists– in the entire exercise that began with some lectures on different health issues to the journalism students at IIMC who had opted for Critical Appraisal Skill Programme (CASP) – as the pilot was known then—in addition to their regular academic course.
As we proceeded with the workshops—led by Nicholas Phythian, Will Church and Royston Martin from Thomson Reuters Foundation, and Premila Webster and Bharti Kumarvel from Oxford University – ideas emerged and issues cropped up. Every workshop had a new set of participants who brought with them rich experience and regional diversities enriching the deliberations. The entire exercise was a learning experience for the trainers as well.
By now the course became everyone’s baby!
After a series of workshops in India and a short training at Oxford University, things started falling in place. By the first half of 2017, the module had more or less taken shape with Nicholas Phythian taking the lead in finalising the course that has been beautifully and simply converged into three modules – critical skills, mother and child and immunisation — from a whole universe of health issues.
The course has been integrated as a module within all the eight communication streams that the Indian Institute of Mass Communication offers at present.
The online course is available for entry and mid-level health reporters and aims to enhance the capacities of media representatives to generate factual and non-sensational reports. It has modules on immunisation, mother and child health and critical appraisal.
UNICEF says evidence shows that a well-researched news story, underpinned with an evidence-based approach can help mitigate any adverse perception about large scale public health initiatives such as the Routine Immunization programmes. It also helps dispel myths and fears and ensures pro-active public participation. Here, media has a critical role to play by way of shaping the conversation.
India has one of the largest immunization programmes in the world, in terms of the number of beneficiaries, geographical coverage and quantities of vaccine used, with nearly 25 million newborns targeted for immunization annually. Over nine million immunization sessions are held across the country to achieve this. However, only 62 per cent of the children in India receive full immunization during the first year of their life.