Engaging with Media: Is it a ‘scary’, ‘showy’ and ‘not so good

As a part of the 3rd South Asian Regional Symposium on ‘Evidence Informed Health Care’ at CMC Vellore, I had an opportunity to listen to Dr. Norman Swan, a pediatrician turned journalist, who is currently working as a health correspondent with Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The topic of his talk was ‘use of media in public health’ with a focus on ‘why and how public health professionals (mainly doctors) shall engage with media?’. I really enjoyed his talk and herewith I am putting a few points that I gathered from his inputs.

Why Docs often avoid engaging with media?

Scared to face media?

1) They are scared of getting ‘misquoted’ by media…..
– Remember, its only you, who remember for long (and may be your employer for even longer) that you were ‘misquoted’. People at large have no interest in remembering that. For them, today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s (if not evening’s) waste paper (something to be collected for ‘pastee vala’). Remember that the average grab on television is of maximum 6 seconds!
– There is no other way to reach to millions and millions of people but using mass media.
– ‘Good journalists’ rarely ‘misquote’. It is also a result of ‘misreporting’ by us or an inherent potential of any communication (between say a doc and journalist) to get misinterpreted!
– Finally, an important (and probably only effective) way to learn to get media coverage is to keep engaging with media.

2) Media ‘sensesionalise’ issues…
– Yes, they do sensesionalise. Remember people have got hundred things to do in their daily routine and it is your job to make them realize that at given point in time, there is nothing more important than to listen/read your story! You often literally have to grab them, shake them, and make them to listen/read to your story.
– Remember, a journalist has to strive for a not so easy daily struggle with editor to get space for his/her story.
– A good journalist will in fact sensesionalise the story by stretching the evidence to its edge (and not crossing the line! that comes only with experience).

Dr. Norman Swan

Why to engage with media?
– It is the only way to reach really large number of people. Most basic thing that we must do (and of course people have right to get to) is information. Probably it is unethical not to provide information (from your research or whatever) to large population for whom it matters most.
– To learn how it works and how you can get media coverage for issues of public interest. The question is ‘why not to engage with media?’.

How to get media coverage?
Probably 3 important things are 1) what to target? 2) How to tell a story? and most importantly 3) Understand how media works.

1) What to target?
– Remember that in a country like India (where a large segment of population can’t read), broadcasting media has potential to go beyond the reach of print media. ‘Radio’ is still an important source of information to reach ‘hard to reach’ population.
– Most broadcasting media start their story search from print media! Better to target the story strategically to an important media form and then let story spread from there, rather trying to share it to ‘all’ and ending up with little (or ‘no’) coverage.

2) How to tell a story?

– Use personal stories or ‘case study’ to explain your phenomenon. We all are emotional!
– Use ‘numbers’ in a way that people can comprehend. Try to turn/compare numbers with things that people are more familiar with e.g. (for Bangaloreans) In India deaths from tobacco use are so many that it is like a couple of BMTC buses getting rammed over every minute with no one remaining alive!
– Use more ‘quotes’ and not a simple descriptive story.
– Use negative rather than positive angle of the fact. It evokes stronger emotional reaction. What will make you worry most?; you benefiting hundred rupees without any effort OR you loosing a hundred rupee note!

3)Understand how media works…

– Remember! Journalists are busiest people and are not interested in coming over lunch or dinner but in a good story told over phone or a coffee table! They have few hours in a day to line up stories before editor.
– If you understand and respect this fact, they understand and respect you!
– Engage with an objective of providing information (Not being staunch advocate!)
– They identify their ‘experts’ not on very rational basis but ones who 1) are good communicators 2) are readily accessible 3) can direct them to relevant sources even if they themselves do not have needed information 4) respect their schedule and understand their demands.
– We all rely on intuitions and do not think rationally as a routine and still most of the times we get it right. Do we think of ‘Cochran’s systematic reviews/met-analysis’ while passing through African savana and noticing a grass movement calculating the probability of it being a tiger!!!

So Shall We Have a Media Strategy at IPH ?