Health reporting in a healthy media

Corruption, cancer and calories. At policy and personal levels health issues rate highly in the media and public debates.  But coverage doesn’t always seem healthy.  Why?

Recent media reports on a range of health issues highlight the interest of the media and public in this important area of policy. 

The ongoing scandal with Parliamentary allegations of corruption and fraud in our privatised health system have proven to be a running sore of the Government, with significant press and TV news coverage.

Similarly reports of a shortage of cancer care places in our hospital system have been front-page stories.

Contrast this with reports of occupational health and safety incidents.  Even fatalities and those in usual circumstances such as the death of a worker through a lighting strike, rate modest, almost invisible coverage.

When the ABS recently released its Australian Health Survey 2011-12 there was a flood of health related information.  High and growing rates of obesity in WA were the most covered of that in the media.  However, an analysis by Save Our Services of that same ABS data found that in WA compared with 2008 18.5% more people now experience high or very high levels of psychological distress. Nationally these rates are falling.

But mental health issues weren’t covered at all in the mainstream media..

What is going on here, is this healthy media coverage?

Yes, and no.

Supporters of Save Our Services may have seen a recent report where we made use of a cake shaped like a Perth train and attempted to gift this to Premier Barnett on his new office opening.

That media conference had serious intent, to highlight the priorities of the Government.  For the cost of the new office two three car rail set could have been purchased.

The use of a cake was a reflection of the need for a visual element, essential for TV and online media. 

In a similar way, obesity as a topic allows for images of large people, while mental ill-health as a condition does not lend itself so much to imagery.

Emotional reaction is important.  Disgust at corruption or fear and uncertainty in the case of cancer are examples. 

In short media preferences are in part determiend by the nature of each medium.  Commercial media has to compete for custom and so largely reflect the reaction and ‘buy-in’ of public audiences. 

Understanding these issues - by using images and emotion as well as personal and local stories  - allows for connection to be created.  This is necessary if we are the get out the messages needed for better health and other services.