Where Does Health Media Go After COVID-19?

Raina Sarmah

Written by Raina Sarmah

Raina Sarmah is an Associate of M Booth Health and believes that public health research can make a compelling story.

When I was an epidemiology student performing statistical analyses and exploring disease trends, I had a recurring thought: “Public health research should not be exclusive to academic journals. These findings should be reported in mainstream media.”

What I did not expect was a global pandemic saturating the news cycle.

In a year since the WHO declared COVID-19 a global health emergency, we’ve been consumed by a sea of headlines and hashtags across news outlets and social media platforms. From the surge of information an infodemic emerged — a surplus of COVID-19 coverage, both legitimate and misinformed. The clickbait headlines, sensationalized coverage, and conspiracy theories have led to plummeting trust in mainstream media. People are overwhelmed with more information than they can process.

Certainly not what I wished for when I suggested that reporters should cover more public health issues.

If there is any upside to this past year of inconceivable loss, it is that healthcare media is diversifying its content. After 365 days of personally analyzing pandemic coverage, the stories that stuck with me featured more than just the latest numbers. COVID-19 made it critical for scientists and journalists to join forces and turn healthcare media into a true interdisciplinary practice.

Nuanced reporting, data visualization and compelling audio narratives will keep redefining the healthcare media landscape, even after COVID-19 is no longer in our daily news roundup.

Nuance Is Key

Research findings in health and science are repetitive and gradual, while the news is always changing and fast-paced. As a result, health journalism has molded into a hybrid of the two, and every new study became a new story. In the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, every development led to more confusion.

For too long, consumers have treated science as a magical solution, easily lured by headlines such as “Doing this one exercise will help you lose 20 pounds” or “Catnip can be used as insect repellent” (really). The reality: being wrong is built into the process of science. During the pandemic, we saw researchers change their models of projected COVID-19 cases and deaths and present new numbers frequently. Public health officials issued contradictory guidance on mask-wearing. Given the uncertainty and novelty of a new disease, every update seemed newsworthy, and the updates that were wrong likely contributed to reduced trust in the media.

As we continue to report on COVID-19 and other health issues, it is important to insert nuance and debate into stories. Through explanatory journalism, reporters can link to resources or information that provide greater context and send the message that research is ongoing.

Another way to break from one-dimensional headlines is to report on multiple studies at once – not to cherry-pick findings from each study, but to highlight the similarities and differences and start a dialogue. In addition, reporters could write on research methods, rather than always focusing on the outcomes.

COVID-19 marked a revived enthusiasm for health stories, but with the story must come the science.

Showing the Numbers That Count

“Flatten the curve” to slow the spread of disease became common vernacular, a thrill for science communicators. The pandemic created daily demand from the media for statistical commentary. In response, teams of epidemiologists made COVID-19 datasets accessible for visualization, which helped public health authorities quickly digest local case numbers and hospitalizations.

Data visualizations are powerful for communicating information. As the public has grown accustomed to seeing charts and infographics on COVID-19 data, healthcare media’s appetite for well-designed data visualizations in their reporting will continue to increase.

When creating a data visualization, it is important not to throw all of the numbers into a chart, as is done in statistical analyses. Designers should understand the context of the data and how the findings support the key message. Visualizations should be honest about what is and is not represented and avoid generalized predictions or comparisons. Well-designed graphics incorporate lay language to explain concepts and make careful color decisions (do not use red to represent death from a disease that is not a life sentence.) A thoughtfully designed data visualization can be the most compelling part of a healthcare story.

Having a Real Conversation

COVID-19 news moves at an alarmingly fast pace, and social media has kept right up. Many people gather their daily news from at least one social media platform. While the spread of misinformation on these platforms is a major issue, there is also an opportunity for scientists and public health professionals to contribute to the healthcare media landscape, publicize their narratives, and use their voice. Literally. The growing popularity in podcasts and new social media apps such as Clubhouse allow health professionals to voice their expertise and is quickly disrupting the traditional ways of presenting health information.

While building relationships with health outlets can launch data to consumers, health professionals can also share their messages and have conversations with colleagues on the air. Listeners can witness the debate and nuance that’s vital to science played out in real time, and hear misinformation dispelled at its source. Who better to receive health news from than the health professionals themselves?

Of course, health professionals are not automatically podcast ready. Training can improve their speaking voices, craft their messages, and deliver pithy takeaways free of scientific jargon. Taking these simple steps, health professionals will attract a steady following.

As for Clubhouse, time will tell whether the platform changes the way health information is communicated. So far, in-app conversations in healthcare have been centered on dispelling COVID-19 myths. Yet, at a time we’ve all felt isolated, the app’s “social audio” medium might be just what we need most: two-way conversations.

The pandemic has transformed how we consume and share healthcare news. Despite the saturation of COVID-19 in every news outlet, the virus barely scratches the surface of all the important health issues that merit media coverage. Informing consumers with nuanced science, clear data and meaningful conversations will change the healthcare media landscape for the better, and this epidemiologist-turned-health-communicator is buzzing with excitement for what’s to come.