A random online poll conducted at the recently concluded National Health Writers’ Convention in Delhi revealed that many health journalists from across the country were not aware of low-calorie sweeteners, their benefits or impact on pregnant women, children etc. This was a little worrying given the fact that India is the diabetes capital of the world. As a member of the WHO Polio Communication Review team many years back, I had found several journalists, particularly in the rural and semi-urban areas, mistakenly identifying AFP or Acute Flaccid Paralysis as polio cases, as both had similar symptoms.
The reports based on papers published in some Western journals claiming that eating chocolates would help women produce happy babies and usage of coconut oil can have disastrous health consequences are examples of how lobbies and vested interests are able to push through their commercial agenda in the garb of scientific research in the absence of trained health communication professionals.
It was for this very reason that the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) in collaboration with UNICEF, Oxford University, George Institute of Global Health and Thomson Reuters Foundation designed India’s first public health communication programme or the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP) in Public Health Journalism and Communication with the objective of training present and future journalists in evidence-based reporting as health care is too important a beat to be left at the mercy of unskilled personnel. Public health reporting based on unverified, unsubstantiated and unattributed information can have disastrous consequences on the public at large. CASP provided budding journalists critical and research skills to appraise public health issues and thereby strengthening media’s ability to report in a balanced manner.
After the success of the pilot programme at IIMC, UNICEF India has taken forward the programme not only to other media schools but also has organised training programmes for health reporters working with leading newspapers.
With the advent of digital media in a big way, both the opportunities and challenges before public health communication have grown exponentially. Having the world’s largest WhatsApp subscriber base, majority of Indians, both skilled and unskilled, literate and illiterate, rural and urban, are sourcing their information from the platform. Consequently, a lot of fake news is also being dished out in the garb of scientific information. While some efforts have been put in by governments, both state and Central, some NGOs, concerned individuals and digital platforms such as Facebook and Google to check fake news, these are mostly confined to the realm of politics, religion and ideology with a view to preventing violence and societal tension. However, not much attention has been paid to check fake news pertaining to public health, including misleading information on magic remedies.
Like the Continuing Medical Education programmes for doctors, the need of the hour is to develop Continuing Media Education programmes for media persons to update them on the developments in the health sector, bust myths and counter-propaganda. Governments, pharma companies, multilateral bodies, NGOs, digital platforms and media houses should join hands to create awareness among the public on critical health issues.