Indian media oftentimes rushes to highlight adverse outcomes of health programmes and unfortunately many of these reports are the outcome of limited research or false data. This could be because of tight deadlines or a poor understanding of the subject due to lack of training. However, this can be dangerous because media reports tend to have a significant impact on public acceptance of health initiatives, policy making, new programmes and health sector funding.
For instance, one of India’s biggest public health success stories is its polio eradication drive, which led the country to be declared polio-free in 2014. The media in particular played a very crucial role in both highlighting the progress of the programme as well as flagging any administrative lapses. However, in some tough situations where the population was not receptive to the polio vaccine due to ignorance or misconceptions, a section of the media was also participating in perpetuating their resistance by openly disparaging the drive as being detrimental to the rights of the community to procreate. They were eventually converted to accepting the benefits of the polio drive through information and education campaigns by UNICEF and local community religious leaders. Again, after India was declared polio-free, a scare was created when some media reported that polio cases had been detected afresh. This was found to be untrue, and resulted from lack of proper research and understanding of polio.
A ‘Critical Appraisal Skills Programme’ certification, conceptualised by UNICEF, designed by Oxford University, Thomson Reuters Foundation and George Institute of Global Health, implemented by the Indian Institute of Mass Communications, New Delhi, is one such training course that can help to bridge this skill gap in health sector reporting. Such a public health communication course should be integrated into the curriculum of media schools and working media professionals should also be exposed to it through orientation programmes and workshops.
Read a column on this by K.G.Suresh, Director-General, Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, published in the Pioneer newspaper, here: