On January 30, 2020, India’s first confirmed case of the coronavirus infection was reported in Kerala. It was followed by a dramatic spike in interest in health news and coverage of the coronavirus infection from many angles. The Covid-19 pandemic was correctly treated as supremely important, dominating every front page and broadcast. Interpreting developments in the medical field seemed to become every journalist’s priority. The crisis was a fierce reminder of the need for credible and sustained public health journalism.

While the fault lines in India’s healthcare system have been accorded a great deal of attention in the media over the past year, it had been clear much before the pandemic hit the country that our public healthcare system was one of the worst in the world. India’s vulnerability to the pandemic has been a result of poor expenditure on healthcare for decades.

The policy-related challenges that have come to the fore only now have long needed to be addressed. These include large rural-urban and gender gaps in access to healthcare due to poverty, deprivation and ignorance.

While the enormous scale of the coronavirus infection merits the coverage that it received, health journalism – the medium to place these ever-looming public health issues on the national public agenda and inform action – has rarely been accorded comparable importance by our media. As a second wave of the pandemic swells, the past year’s developments indicate why the health beat deserves more, year-round importance than most media organisations usually give it.

Marked by sensationalism

Around the world, the time and space devoted to coverage of health and medical news has usually been low. Unless accompanied by immediacy, and in some cases, fear and panic, articles about health rarely make it to the front pages. Studies on health coverage in the mass media, both in India and other countries, show that the health beat is sidelined by beats such as politics, crime and the economy. Newspapers published the bulk of their health coverage on their inside pages, which are considered to have fewer readers and less importance than the front page.

In covering health news, the approach by a large section of the Indian media has been event-driven, focusing on the publicity of a current public health risk. Coverage of healthcare policy or the medical research process to improve public knowledge about health and medicine is uncommon. Health stories in the news tend to mirror changes in numbers of a population affected by the disease and its associated seasonal variables.

The quality of health reportage in India has also been an area of concern. A 2013 study in a publication called Journalism analysed H1N1 news coverage in The Times of India in 2009 and concluded that the English daily’s stories focused on framing the virus as “a deadly disease”, did not provide contextual information, and “its coverage presented death in such a manner as to produce fear and panic”.

It noted that the H1N1 coverage moved from the front to the inside pages of the newspaper “once its firstness began to fade and the toll began to mount in the state”.

Needless to say, much of the Indian media followed a similar pattern while reporting on the coronavirus pandemic. Many reports during the initial days of the spread of the coronavirus infection relied on sensationalism, with news anchors peddling controversial claims about the origins of the virus and access to vaccines.

A street scene in Bangalore in July. Credit: Manjunath Kiran/AFP

Quick-hit stories

An increasing fast-paced environment of the news and the practice of journalism being influenced by political considerations and commercial interests means explanatory, long-form reporting, associated with health and science news is overlooked. Quick hit stories that do not involve much research are preferred over enterprise journalism. “Softer news” that aligns more towards fitness and exercise, a topic that is the least policy oriented, gets prioritised to fill the news hole.

Health news is particularly sensitive to advertisers’ interests. Commercial, paid-for segments or columns by hospitals or medical professionals are often run as expert-opinions. In an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Trudy Lieberman discussed the practice of such sponsorship deals between TV news organisations and hospitals and its detrimental effect on health news.

The increasing reliance by journalists on public relations firms to provide content for health stories also contributes to the diminishing line between health news and advertising. This means new medical interventions or devices are portrayed successful by the media, and potential harms and costs are often downplayed.

The gender skew

The health beat has also traditionally been reserved for women reporters, even as purportedly “prime” beats such as foreign policy, military, politics are male bastions.

A 2015 study by The Global Media Monitoring Project that looked at the participation of women and men in the news in 114 countries found that that stories on the topic of science and health are most frequently reported female journalists: with 50% of all articles on this were topic reported by women. (On the hand, female reporters least frequently cover stories on politics and government. Only 31% of articles on this topic were covered by women.)

This gender stereotyping in public health reporting is not uncommon even now in the Indian media. A report titled Gender Inequality in India Media released in 2019 noted that across English newspapers in the country, only 10.5% of articles on defence and national security were written by women.

The gender skew in health reportage also hurts coverage of health issues. Several studies have found that journalists tend to quote men in medicine and allied professions more frequently in their articles, leading to a one-dimensional view of public health.

Lack of training

A poor understanding of medicine and science among journalists has contributed to public confusion during the coronavirus pandemic. Reportage in the time period revealed the lack of trained health journalists in the country.

Reporting on public health requires a set of skills that differ from those that journalists on other beats usually have. It requires a basic familiarity with research, science and clinical medicine and being able to look at the beat in a broader policy context. Yet, there is barely any training that news organisations or journalism programmes in the country provide for health reporters. Journalism institutes do not provide specialised training in the field.

The Covid-19 pandemic calls for a re-evaluation of the importance of specialist reporters in the news industry. A beat as important as public health needs long-term investment and specialised reporters who explain, investigate and question. To sustain and enhance the coverage of developments in health, what is needed is resources, networks, training and fellowships. The response to the pandemic should be improvements in health journalism and perhaps, a different kind of journalism.

Sonali Verma has reported on health at a national daily for almost two years. She is currently media and outreach officer at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.