Monthly Archives: July 2016

Health journalism: a great profession facing difficult times

 

maria

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 at Berbés Asociados agency.

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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Wanted – journalists who break out of the bubble

Peter McIntyre

Peter McIntyre

There is increasing concern about the extent to which we live in bubbles of our own opinions, logging on to websites that support our world view, following twitter feeds from people we agree with and confronting hostile opinions only from internet trolls.

This is the opposite of how the scientific method is supposed to work – by testing and challenging to arrive at a new level of understanding; necessary not only for science but also for deciding where to put resources and how to organise services.

Cancer professionals are good at talking to each other and sometimes to policy makers, but not so successful at helping the public to understand what can be done today, what might be done tomorrow and what is just hype and hope. The public attitude to cancer remains somewhere between despair at the disease and naïve romanticism about cures.

That is the space that journalists are supposed to occupy – questioning and probing to enable well informed and diverse voices to reach the public. But we all know how rarely this happens and how often mass media amplify the sense of confusion.

In a modest way, the European School of Oncology (publishers of Cancer World) has tried to address this. Over the past decade the Best Cancer Reporters Award (now the Cancer World Journalism Award) has recognised excellent reporting by almost 40 journalists from 15 countries. These experienced professionals spent months researching pieces that went below the surface to challenge myths about cancer: stigma that obstructs early diagnosis, inequalities in treatment, the need to preserve fertility in younger patients, the myths peddled by ‘miracle’ healers.

Other journalists have been supported to attend global cancer conferences. Last year that included journalists from Bulgaria, Latvia, Romania, Russia and Serbia –so far as we know the only journalists present from those countries to attend the European Cancer Congress.

They seized the opportunities to grill the experts and it showed in their reporting. Milica Momcilovic, from the Serbian Broadcasting Corporation said “Visiting the European Cancer Congress is much better for a journalist because you can actually see and sense what is going on. When you are the ground and you do the leg work, you talk to people and you learn and you see the shadings of the story.”

And Georgeta Neascu who writes for online magazines in Romania talked about how attending the congress helped her to understand how patients can demand more from their health services. “I have a new perspective and I know more about how I can help.”

The coverage a dozen journalists produced between them was amazing, reaching many thousands of people in nine countries. In a cynical world it is inspiring to see (often youngish) professionals who have kept their enthusiasm and sense of mission alive and rewarding to see what happens when they have access to global experts.

The process of choosing the journalists for the 2016 awards and to attend the ECCO conference in Amsterdam in January 2017 is about to begin. This is an opportunity for journalists who still have a sense of curiosity and a drive to understand and explain. The Journalism Awards will not go to journalists who peddle myths or rewrite press handouts. The Congress places will go to journalists who are willing to learn and to challenge themselves and others. This is an investment in time, skills and people and the results can be inspiring.

I am already looking forward to the results.

For further information on how to apply for a journalist grant to attend the ECCO Congress in 2017 please visit http://cancerworld.net/media/training-events/