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What does it take to get our media to cover health issues affecting low and middle income countries?

The separation of Bangladeshi conjoined twins Trishna and Krishna in Melbourne in November 2009 was a huge news story.

It accounts for a staggering 90% of health-related stories mentioning Bangladesh that are held in the University of Sydney’s health-related television news and current affairs database, which goes back over seven years.

But who were the real beneficiaries of this story, and how might the changing media landscape encourage wider coverage of the health issues facing low and middle-income countries?

Michelle Imison, a researcher from University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, reports on new research investigating some of these issues.

 *** 

What can we learn from the media coverage of Bangladeshi conjoined twins Trishna and Krishna?

Michelle Imison writes:

Our previous research has established that Australian television news and current affairs coverage of health from low and middle-income countries (LMICs) is replete with stories about exotic infections and natural disasters.

They provide scope for fantastic images, but without much context, sustained focus or attention to the kind of health concerns that increasingly burden LMICs – most notably, non-communicable diseases.

The separation of Bangladeshi conjoined twins Trishna and Krishna in Melbourne in November 2009 was one of the biggest Australian media stories of that year.

In the University of Sydney’s health-related television news and current affairs database, which goes back over seven years, around 90% of news stories that mention Bangladesh are about these twins.

Their story features elements that play well in both domestic and international health news: children and their health, amazement at the work of medical practitioners and an ‘Australian focus’.

We interviewed a number of Australian journalists who had reported on Trishna and Krishna, asking them, among other things, about the choices they made in putting together their stories, to reflect on their own (and others’) coverage and about audience reactions to it.

The picture that emerged was of a story that, while ostensibly ‘about’ Bangladesh, was mainly told for Australian benefit.

It was useful to those who served as news sources, particularly the surgeons and the hospital responsible, exciting for journalists because of its dramatic narrative and appealing to news audiences as a potent expression of personal connection, emotional impact and national pride.

In fact the only real ‘loser’ in this story was Bangladesh, as the context for the girls’ early lives and as a country with health priorities both broader and more mundane than those of two, identified children with a rare congenital condition.

This presentation fitted with the journalists’ ideas about what their audiences wanted to know as well as their professional sense of what would work as news.

While ‘newsworthiness’ considerations of the kind mentioned above were part of this reckoning, the other important reasons why Trishna and Krishna’s story looked as it did were operational, relating to journalistic work routines and expectations within media organisations.

In a nutshell, journalists’ ability to foster relationships with a finite number of authoritative, domestic sources meant that Bangladeshi input was largely irrelevant, and the ability to get the images or footage they needed either locally (in Melbourne) or through existing agreements with news agencies (from Bangladesh) made leaving Australia unnecessary.

A combination of news priorities and logistic constraints literally ‘made’ the story.

Are there lessons to be drawn from the extensive and sustained coverage of Trishna and Krishna?

There are real barriers to increasing coverage of LMIC health in the future, not least of which is that most such stories – unlike that of these twins – will not take place in Australia.

But a couple of evolving media modes and tools suggest how this kind of news might be brought ‘closer’ to domestic audiences.

Although the financial ‘squeeze’ on production of news content is only likely to increase, broadcast capacity in and from LMICs is growing, thereby enlarging the range of perspectives on events in these countries.

Technological developments are lowering barriers to both participation in and creation of media; there is increasing potential for non-journalists to become news gatherers.

The Internet offers a platform for the wider diffusion of stories from alternative sources and greater engagement with LMIC health-related information.

New and varied television formats could provide an opportunity to present LMIC health stories attractively and beyond the limitations of traditional ‘news’.

None of these possibilities is without its own constraints or potential drawbacks. Taken together, though, they suggest ongoing change in the form and content of the journalism that currently supplies many of the mass-media health news stories originating in LMICs.

The story of Trishna and Krishna has proved a fascinating case study. Our next, related piece of research will focus on audience responses to the coverage of the story and we hope to be able to report on those findings in the near future.

• Michelle Imison is a PhD candidate in the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney. The paper on which this piece is based, co-authored with Professor Simon Chapman, was published recently in the Australian Journalism Review.

Disclosure: Michelle Imison is a member of the Board of Oxfam Australia.

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Australian Palliative Care Conference
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