Illustration: Paul Aitchison
Illustration: Paul Aitchison

Unhealthy reporting

Health journalism remains captive to commercial interests and government policy.

(This is an essay from our print quarterly 'Growing Media, Shrinking Spaces'. See more from the issue here.)
For much of the history of Indian journalism, reporting on health issues was not even considered a 'beat'. It was one of the many side beats or sub-beats of reporters covering more important beats like politics, governance, law, science and even sports. Health 'reporting' was often published in a column format, or, alternately, a page or two in a women's or general interest magazine would be given for a discussion on diet or some other ailment. This tepid kind of 'disease' and 'lifestyle' reporting has now been mainstreamed into news pages under the rubric of 'health'.

In the early 90s, when health reporting began to gain recognition as a separate beat, it was considered a soft beat, distinct from 'hard' news which was about more important issues. At the beginning of its evolution, health reporting was essentially concerned with the public sector – government health ministries and departments, hospitals and other public health facilities, along with some amount of disease reporting. Private sector coverage was almost non-existent, and the few journalists doing it were often sneered at as PR merchants giving free advertising to profit-making enterprises. A reporter writing about a private sector doctor or establishment had to contend with peer speculation as to whether the story was a 'plug' or real news. This might not have been entirely fair: considering that over 70 percent of the public accessed private sector healthcare, they could probably have used more information on it.

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Himal Southasian