Public Health and Mainstream Media

A weekly look at advocacy, media and entrepreneurship

Here’s a quick question, it’s a lazy Sunday morning, and maybe you are sipping tea

and easting buttered toast. As you pick up your favourite newspaper, right there on the front page, is a story about hunger in a corner of rural India, jostling side by side with an advertisement for a pizza chain. What would be the impact of that on you, would you just turn away from the story on hunger, uncomfortable, would you maybe postpone the decision to buy a pizza this week?

And that is the dilemma of getting mainstream media to cover public health and other stories about the developmental sector. These are not just not ‘hot button’ stories that get attention over Politics, Bollywood, Cricket or the Stock Market. Nor are, as one corporate official told me, companies comfortable with their advertisements on the same page as such stories. Yet these stories, concerning our public health and developmental sector are of vital importance to our progress as a nation. For example, by 2020, there is a good chance that India will be a water stressed nation, with only 1600 cubic metres of water available per person, per year. This would be below the global standard of 1700 cu m per capita per year. Chances are that inspite of the critical importance of water to our health and survival as a people; this still may not be a priority running story for the media. 

There is however a way to get sustained coverage and raise the profile of public health issues. Here’s the heart of how you do it:-

  1. What’s the news?: One pet peeve of the developmental sector is that reporters don’t carry their stories inspite of their obvious importance, and one of the pet peeves of the media is that NGOs tend not to understand the compulsions of having a news peg for your story. Fact is, that as you go through your lazy Sunday , a 1000 people will die of TB ,somewhere in India. Shocking as this is , it’s not a new fact , and a proper news peg has to be found within this broad parameter. So every organisation, engaging with the media has to thoroughly understand the issue at hand and know what makes news within that. You are competing with Kareena Kapoor and IPL matches for space after all. 
  2. Question Yourself: Ask yourself three important questions. What is new about my story? What is the implication of my material for the government, the people affected and the community at large? And what is the scale of my story? For example, India has the word’s largest health programme for treating TB, yet the story lies in the fact that this coverage does not ensure cures for a treatable disease and the lack of political focus in every constituency to ensure treatment. Therefore, as one of our clients did, an effort to assess political will to control TB made an attractive story for the media.
  3. Respect your Journalist: Very often I find that organisations are only keen on talking with the top man in a few newspapers and channels. But for issues like public health, the broader and deeper your reach, the more long lasting will be the awareness you build. Don’t forget the language press or the cub reporter. They grow up to head channels and newspapers and will not forget that you networked with them at the start of their careers.

These are some of the core values of mainstreaming public health in the media, next week; we will take a look at the nuts and bolts of how to make that happen.

Next Week: - A Typical Media Plan for Developmental Issues.

- Paarul Chand  

The guest columnist is a communications entrepreneur, specializing in social advocacy and research, writing and life skills training. 



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