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Journalists: An integral part of the HSR confab?

By Adie Vanessa Offiong
on June 22, 2017

Before November 2016, it had been quite a while since I attended any health conference. I therefore was ecstatic when the opportunity came for me to attend the 4th Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in Vancouver as part of the West African Network of Emerging Leaders in health policy and systems (WANEL).

At the time, I had no clue what HSR meant but my journalistic alter ego took charge as I began going over in my head, how many possible story ideas I would get from there, people I would meet, possible collaborations I could engage in and so on. Also, knowing I would meet people coming from countries with similar situations and challenges as mine is laden with, I looked forward to the opportunity of listening to them and hear their success stories.

One of the most visible things to me in the first few days was how they all seemed to know one another.  I would be in conversation with a WANEL member and almost faster than sound, see an expression of excitement on their face. Initially it was rather incomprehensible, as I silently wondered what part of what we were talking about was joke enough to provoke such a smile, squeal or laughter. But in no time, I saw the reason. They had seen a familiar face they shared a common history with, working to bring about better and sustainable health systems. This was a regular occurrence and I was curious to understand how in only three editions of the HSR, these people had built such a network and sense of community. The warmth of this close-knit family was contagious, in spite of the rather chilly autumn weather outside.

I had my moments of stardom and absolutely relished the quizzical looks on the faces when I introduced myself as a journalist. For reasons not entirely clear to me, the average health systems researcher admires two kinds of “ health systems” people: policymakers and, to a lesser extent perhaps, but still, journalists (even if they probably don’t trust them fully 🙂 ).  I also enjoyed responding to their question and at some point began reeling it out to them before they asked – “A journalist, what’s a journalist doing here. Come to think of it, I never imagined it was an important part of this conference.”

For those who were interested in carrying the conversation further, it was quite heartwarming when I saw that they realised how very alike our goals are and the fact that whether researcher, decision maker, practitioner, activist or journalist, we are all working together and fighting for the same cause – better lives for our people.

Whilst I was happy to see the HSR camaraderie, I wondered why only mostly researchers and people in health systems enjoyed such a bond at the HSR. Why were the (handful) journalists I met, there mainly to cover the event, while attending sessions and not playing any key roles (except for a few plenaries with moderating journalists.) I was certainly glad I could contribute by moderating a WANEL panel.

There are no boundaries where it comes to what HSR as an idea, movement, phenomenon can stand and strive for. I have a hunch however, that the HSR community would be better heard and be more impactful if team HSG made a conscious and deliberate effort to include more journalists in the programme, not just to cover sessions (including plenaries) or to moderate sessions with HPSR stars, old and emerging ones.  These are generic roles expected of journalists.  But they’re also rather unadventurous. What about inviting journalists who for instance can follow a Kabir Sheikh for a day or a Lucy Gilson? Or a journalist who can further investigate issues raised at the symposium or one who can query policies and budgets armed with verifiable information gathered at the Symposium? Or better still, invite journalists who when they report can share stories of successful models that have worked in other parts of the world and can be applicable to similar settings. What about the possibility of organizing interviews at the HPSR symposium where tough dreaded questions are posed to big wigs in global health policy & HPSR circles, something like an ‘HSG Hardtalk’? I can already see  the crowd cheering, whenever the big shot tries to avoid a question. Wouldn’t it be lovely if the (pitbull) moderator blurts out ‘fake news!’, whenever Bill Gates or Tedros make statements better suited for the MDG era than the new SDG/planetary health era?

Or how about making provisions for a ‘Politico style’ journalist to move around in Liverpool, trying to find juicy news and the like? Politico was at the World Health Assembly this year, and Liverpool isn’t far from Geneva (even if Britain feels a bit remote nowadays). You could also think of a ‘pool of journalists’ who would go from session to session to shake things up, whenever “death by PowerPoint” is a threat.

Plenty of options so let’s break away from the routine and add some tonic to the mix of researchers, academics, policymakers and students. Journalists will give the right balance to that mix.

Just as funders, decision makers, civil society and other symposium participants all have roles and slots to spread the(ir) gospel, the mainstream media should be afforded the same. We’re good at creating buzz and noise and isn’t this what UHC 2030 (urgently) needs? Moreover, there isn’t a more appropriate time, now that the new WHO DG, Dr. Tedros’ first priority is UHC.

I now introduce myself as a journalist writing human angle stories on development issues with a solutions-based approach. I tend to tell my stories better if I can include hard data which I represent in charts, graphs and infographics. However, it was only after attending the Vancouver confab the significance of this dawned on me. Another benefit of the conference is that I am still writing stories out of the ideas I got from there.

Although I was told that the last HSR symposium made a bit more effort than previous editions towards having (more) journalists attend the symposium, I still think more can be done. It seemed to me that the main role of journalists who were in attendance, was to promote the event through platforms made available by the organizers like the Global Health TV, rather than actually be a part of the symposium in the sense that they sat on panels, had a spot in the market, etc.

Recently, on June 13, 2017, it was reported that a Christian group wants law that lets them discriminate against disabled people because “they believe church services could be disrupted by people with mental illnesses.” Wouldn’t it be more impactful if for instance journalists through their various platforms lent their (amplifying) voices to a vital subject like Global mental health: Under-represented at international global health conferences? – especially considering that mental health is a global issue in dire need of attention?

Although blogs are one way of getting the message out, greater media participating and involvement can make a bigger impact. One might also consider a structural collaboration between HSG and The Conversation.

Our call for resilient health systems would be near deafening enough for governments, politicians policymakers and other actors to want to listen even more. But journalists are also excellently placed to push a bit, and ask the hard (even uncomfortable) questions, which researchers often can’t (or won’t) ask or because they’re just too nice (just kidding 🙂 ). Journalists tend to be a bit nastier (a bit more like the real world, quoi). Nevertheless, we’re all on the same side guys, we’re only using different vehicles for our advocacies in order to arrive at our destination.

Also, journalists provide a faster turnaround time, are often “jacks of all trades” and can bring in a broader perspective to issues which other stakeholders often tend to view from the perspectives of their narrow field of expertise.

Drawing from the wisdom of professor emeritus, Prawase Wasi, M.D. and his analysis on the Triangle That Moves The Mountain, as researchers and the academia mostly create the knowledge, let journalists carry on the social movement and learning, and provoke the political involvement. To kick start a real UHC movement, globally and nationally, journalists are indispensable in this ‘triangle’. Even in the era of ‘fake news’ – perhaps even more so in the era of fake news.

As Liverpool 2018 lurks around the corner and the agenda for the programme is being planned, it would be nice to bear in mind and make provisions for significant roles for journalists to play, lead and participate in sessions, formats. Perhaps journalists could even be mainstreamed in the programme.

According to Wasi, “Knowledge derived from research must be translated into forms and languages that can empower the public.” This is what journalists know how to do best.  We’re more likely to follow up on the issues. And don’t worry: we’re not all pitbulls!

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