5 Tips for Better Health Reporting

By: Kendall McCabe | 05/22/2015

2014 winner Olga Komarevtseva's documentary focused on art therapy for children with HIV. (Still from "Art Therapy" documentary.)

In a live chat this month, the four winners of ICFJ’s 2014 Maternal and Child Health Reporting Contest offered tips on how to produce health stories that engage audiences and have an impact— the key reasons their reports won last year’s contest.

Together, their winning stories reached a combined audience of 11.5 million people in Brazil, Russia, India and China.

The 2014 contest winners also talked about the challenges they face as health reporters– such as a lack of data, uncooperative officials and the stigma attached to some diseases that make people reluctant to talk openly about their illnesses.

Nigerian health journalist and former ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow Declan Okpalaeke led the discussion, which highlighted best practices.

Here are five key takeaways for health reporters looking to improve their work:

1. Focus on stories that give audiences information they can use to help them and their health care providers make the best treatment choices.

As she has covered health issues in China, contest winner Yuan Duanduan, a reporter for Southern Weekend, discovered that patients have trouble explaining their problems and concerns to medical staff. She says reliable health reporting based on solid information can bridge the communication gap between the public and medical personnel.

2. Tell compelling, people-focused stories to help make medical issues resonate with audiences.

While reporting on health topics, it is best to tell “compelling human interest stories that the readers can relate to,” says Mariana Della Barba of BBC Brasil. Focusing on a single person or group of people helps to make stories appealing. At the same time, it’s also important to include a variety of voices to ensure different perspectives are reflected. This gives the report credibility. She suggests speaking to experts on the topic as well as nurses, doctors, researchers and government officials.

3. Use social media to solicit more information and engage your audience.

Della Barba says BBC Brasil posed this question to its 1.4 million Facebook followers: “What is the worst health issue in your city or neighborhood?” The responses they received were “amazing,” she says, “things we could never imagine.” Reporters followed up and produced in-depth stories based on real-life experiences.


4. Employ empathy as a way to better understand your subject and topic.

Talking about health issues— especially to reporters— makes many people uncomfortable.

Olga Komarevtseva, whose winning entry highlighted the use of art therapy for children with HIV in Russia, offers this advice: “Seek to understand your subject and share their feelings.” This will give you a better understanding of what they are dealing with and a more compelling story.

5. Incorporate official data in your stories— but always double-check the numbers.

When reporting on health issues in India, contest winner Priyanka Vora of the Hindustan Times says, “I always check the [government] data with the ground reality. For instance, I had reported on malnutrition in urban slums and found a lot of data discrepancy. Sometimes such discrepancies become stories.”

Knight International Journalism Fellow Declan Okpalaeke agrees with Vora. “The field is the best test of the figures,” he says. “Do the leg work, interview the people on [the ground and]… you will get the truth.”

Already have a great health piece published? Submit your own work to ICFJ’s 2015 Global Health Reporting Contest for your chance to win a cash prize and a study tour to the United States.

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