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From The Wire to Good Times, Bad Times

I like the saying that you so often hear in health – that each system is perfectly designed to produce the results that it does. It’s often used to account for the evidence that the health system itself causes an enormous toll of health problems, known in the jargon as “adverse events”.

Dr Tom Keating, who has a background in health administration and academia, wrote this interesting Crikey piece looking at how the various systems are also perfectly designed to produce dodgy behaviour among those running and providing health services.

His analysis reminded me of that smart, gritty and entirely addictive series, The Wire. Set in the drug shops and cop shops of Baltimore, it shines an illuminating light on the behaviours produced by various political, bureaucratic and legal systems, as well as human fallibility and resilience.

It’s so rich, in plot, character development and language, that it can be watched and enjoyed from a multitude of perspectives. Those with a public health bent find plenty of relevant storylines – the futility of the war on drugs, amongst other things.

I’ve spent a large chunk of the past week devouring the fifth and final season, which has much to say to those concerned about the media, its role in contributing to public debate and democratic processes – and its demise.

The series creator David Simon says he based the final season on experiences from his 13 years at The Baltimore Sun. According to the HBO website,  Simon “decries recent trends in the newspaper industry that have conspired to make high-end journalism vulnerable: out-of-town chain ownership, an economic climate in which the share price of media companies matters more to industry leaders than the product itself, and a newsroom culture in which prizes, personal ambition and the cult of the “impact” story has replaced consistent and detailed coverage of complex issues as the primary goal”.

He says: “It made sense to finish ‘The Wire’ with this reflection on the state of the media, as all the other attendant problems of the American city depicted in the previous four seasons will not be solved until the depth and range of those problems is first acknowledged. And that won’t happen without an intelligent, aggressive and well-funded press.”

All of which is the lead-in for where I’m really heading. The demise of the traditional media is an important matter whose implications warrant some serious thought by those concerned about public health and health policy more broadly. It also warrants more than thought – opportunities for engagement are emerging.

Here are two that I’d encourage Croakey readers to consider supporting. I should declare that I have a vested interest in bringing them to your attention, having a connection with both. But I’d also be happy to post any other suggestions that you may have, of examples of new media opportunities for the public health crowd.

1. The Foundation for Public Interest Journalism. You can read more about it here but in a nutshell, the not-for-profit Foundation aims to develop new models for funding and doing journalism. Envisgaged as a partnership between journalists, publishers, academics and the community, it is based at Swinburne University and is accepting nominations for its board until 30 June (that’s next Tuesday so shake a leg if you’re interested). If you want to get an idea of how it might work – and how the public health community might be able to contribute, whether by funding or suggesting stories – have a look at how this new media project works in the US.

2. Inside Story. This online publication, also with a Swinburne connection, covers current affairs and culture. If you’ve something worthwhile to say about public health issues – and would like to say it at a length and depth that the mainstream media doesn’t always appreciate – this is another worthwhile option. It has run some health pieces, but I reckon the public health community could be doing a lot more here.

Out of the bad times, hopefully some good times will grow for journalism and new media. But it will depend on the wider community’s engagement and support.


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