How journalism is shifting global health perceptions

Jennifer Yang is a Toronto Star reporter who has been covering global health since 2012.
Jennifer Yang is a Toronto Star reporter who has been covering global health since 2012.

By Brian De Los Santos

During the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, outbreak in Canada in 2003, a reporter interviewed a woman who had lost her mother to the disease. Her mother caught the disease while at a hospital and later died.

The woman caught SARS as well and was forced into early retirement because of the illness.

“And when I interviewed her she had no idea where SARS had come from,” said Toronto Star reporter Jennifer Yang at a AAAS session in Chicago.

“She had no idea that something that completely ruined her life had come from a bat. So for me that was a really eye-opening experience.”

Yang told this anecdote as part of the “Global Public Health Security: It Takes a Village” seminar at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting this weekend at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. She spoke about the issue of lack of reporting to inform people about global health topics.

She is one of the few remaining journalists in the world who covers global health, while the focus of newsrooms around the globe are shifting toward a local news model. That leaves the door open for many stories, of disease and heath issues facing the world, to go untold, she said.

The Toronto Star, she said, saw this void in information and created Yang’s position in 2012. But even with the new beat, her stories have had to compete on front page budgets with stories like Rob Ford’s, which have drawn more than 100,000-plus page views.

“At the end of the day, my global health stories have had to compete with this one,” Yang said. “And it is a struggle. These are the kinds of stories that gain the most interest from editors and readers.”

But that’s paved ways for alternative publications to jump into the global health reporting world, such as the PLOS global health blog, Yang said.

“More and more of these groups who want global news out there are investing time and money into making content,” she said. “This was the sort of stuff that reporters would hunt down and find people to tell stories, but now they’re able to do it directly.”