Health journalism: a great profession facing difficult times



Guest blogger María Valerio, who recently left El Mundo, where she had spent 14 years covering health stories


I still remember Sonia. I visited her at the nice apartment she had just rented in Madrid after arriving here from a small Spanish city. We were talking about her cancer diagnosis for hours. I remember I was impressed by her courage in facing illness, above all because she was about the same age as me. We were both in our early 20s. She had just received her diagnosis, and I was just starting my career as a journalist.

I wrote her story for El Mundo, the Spanish newspaper I’ve been writing for over the last 14 years. The article received an award from the Spanish Society of Medical Oncology, and since then I’ve met and interviewed dozens of cancer patients.

I lost contact with Sonia, but one sunny afternoon many years ago I ran into her again at a conference for cancer survivors. This time she showed off a long thick mane of hair – unlike the last time I’d met her – but her smile was just the same. She remembered me too, and we chatted about our lives. She was a happy breast cancer survivor activist.

I tell you this tiny story to reflect something that is difficult to say in words when you’ve written about cancer for years. On one hand, there are the scientific papers, the arrival of new drugs and the failure of others, the appearance of immunotherapy and genetic testing, the controversial policy issues that can give you a front page story. But on the other hand, there are the hundreds of patients that you have known.

You can use video, multimedia, innovative digital formats… but if there isn’t a story to tell, a life to share with your readers, there’s no journalism at all.

They are what is most important to me: their lives, stories, fears, families, deaths. I carry them around with me in my imaginary backpack. I can’t imagine other way of doing my job but trying to put myself in their place. You can use video, multimedia, innovative digital formats… but if there isn’t a story to tell, a life to share with your readers, there’s no journalism at all.

For 14 years I was part of one of the best team of health reporters in Spanish media. At El Mundo, I had time to cook my stories slowly, attend medical congresses for days, get specialised in cancer, conduct long interviews and find human stories which raised awareness of many health issues in my country. Unfortunately, as the consequences of the economic crisis in Spain took hold over the last four to five years, this dedicated team of health journalists became a luxury that my newspaper could no longer afford.  With fewer colleagues, there was far less time to write stories, and pressures increased.

A couple of months ago, when staffing levels were cut even lower, I decided to quit. Now, I’m starting the second stage in my career, working in communications. I still breathe as a journalist and I am determined to look for good stories which I can pass to colleagues who may be able to write give them the attention they deserve as I’ve enjoyed doing all this time. Many of them don’t work at traditional established newspapers, but in other outlets that have flourished because of the media crisis (there is always a bright side!). I wish them all good luck!


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