Training journalists for better public health reporting

What was the health problem? 

A lack of evidence-based approach to heath reporting; not being able to critically appraise research papers; and an inability to work with data and numbers, analysing and interpreting them, were cited as some of the challenges health journalists face when they write their stories. 

The Critical Appraisal Skills Programme was aimed at enhancing knowledge and skills of media students and journalists on all aspects related to public health reporting, with the intention of having more informed and evidence-based coverage of health issues. 

As Dr Vivekanand Jha, Executive Director of the George Institute for Global Health, India, put it:

“We hope that the programme would serve to enhance and strengthen media’s critical role in taking an evidence-based approach to writing health stories, ensuring that proper and informed debates on public health issues takes place.” 

How did The George Institute get involved?

We shared details about the critical appraisal skills programme that is offered at Oxford with UNICEF and that is where the discussions to customise the programme for journalists began. Premila Webster of Oxford University had been part of this initiative when it started in Oxford way back in the nineties and after discussions and deliberations, we submitted a project to UNICEF to train journalists in public health reporting using the CASP approach. Reuters was roped in to help in the delivery of the training programme to journalists.

In the first year, we did consultation with journalists across the country to understand the gaps in health reporting and then we came up with the critical appraisal skills module. The Indian Institute of Mass Communication did a pilot with media students by customising the course to their needs and offering it for three months. The journalist’s pilot training was also organised by UNICEF. 

How did we address the problem?

We developed a first-of-its-kind Critical Skills Appraisal Programme (CASP) that offers a unique opportunity for professional skill development of journalism students, mid-level media, editors and government officials. Public health experts from George Institute for Global Health, UNICEF, Oxford University, and partners from Reuters Foundation, IIMC and senior members from the media were be actively involved in the delivery of this course.

Critical Appraisal is a process of carefully and systematically analysing evidence to judge its trustworthiness, value and relevance in a particular context. The steps in critical appraisal involves asking the right questions, getting the best evidence, tracking the right source of information , critically appraising the evidence and contextualisation of the news.

We trained journalists and media students in critical appraisal skills and also in using checklists to evaluate media stories that they do. Topics covered included how to read research reports, how to evaluate the quality of evidence, research methodology, etc. 

What was the result?

So far 100 journalists from across the country and 50 media students from IIMC have completed the course. The journalists including representatives of major news organisations such as Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Week, The Hindu, etc. 

Journalists learnt how to use checklists to evaluate the quality of media reports and how to read research papers – a dual improvement strategy that is bound to help strengthen health reporting, 

Who else was involved?

The course was developed by the George Institute for Global Health in collaboration with UNICEF and the University of Oxford and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, is being offered at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC). 

What does the future hold?

  • The course will be expanded to include district journalists in India. 
  • We also plan to set up a website to continuously give feedback to the media-persons on the quality of the health stories that they do. 
  • We plan to focus on data journalism in the future. 
  • An online course on critical appraisal skills for health reporting would be launched soon.