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The Revolution Will Be TweetedDung Hoang

The Revolution Will Be Tweeted

5 lessons for global health communications in the digital era

Chaos and opportunity. The digital revolution has spawned both.

A 1,000-foot wave moving at 1,000 miles an hour, the Web/mobile technology/social media surge has upended industries, academia, government, cultures and the entire global economy in its head-long rush to the future. It has ceded broadcast rights to everyone and shattered (and often shuttered) the traditional media. Numbers tell the story: 1.1 billion Facebook users, 400 million tweets per day, 6 billion hours of YouTube videos viewed each month (almost an hour every month for every human being). 

Like everything else, global health communications—how we gather data and stories about public health, convey discoveries and persuade others to act—has not been exempted. Traditional journalists have lost the financial model that supported global health reporting, while researchers, practitioners and advocates have embraced the possibilities of connecting directly with their communities through social media. And for their part, experts in behavior change communications now work in a wholly new world with a bewildering array of media and platforms through which to channel their messages. 

For better (mostly) or worse, we live in an era rife with change. Based on interviews with journalists, communications experts, and others, here are five key lessons for the new world of global health communications.

It’s Time to Adopt New Models 

In the last decade or so, newspapers like the Boston Globe, Miami Herald and Baltimore Sun closed their international bureaus. More than a third of U.S. foreign correspondent positions were shed between 2003 and 2011, according to the American Journalism Review. With them went many of the opportunities for the general public to encounter stories about malaria, AIDS, tuberculosis, and other health issues outside the U.S. 

To ensure that global health issues still make it to the mainstream media, journalists have found support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other organizations such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. (The Bloomberg School recently partnered with the Pulitzer Center on a student reporting fellowship. See the resulting article on page 38.) Beginning in 2010, the Gates Foundation has supported a global development news section in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian. Recent stories supported by the Pulitzer Center have appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The New Yorker and in other venues. 

Financial support from foundations and other organizations is a new model for journalists. “The bottom line in the global health reporting community is there’s no other money to do this with, so we have to make sure we are very careful to report what we see and not let where the money comes from influence us,” says Joanne Silberner, who used a Pulitzer Center grant to report on cancer in Uganda, India and Haiti for Public Radio International’s The World. “This is new so it’s concerning. I think the firewalls are being constructed.”

"The people who do global health work are dynamic people who make things happen. The situations they are dealing with are often depressing and appalling so any advance is worthy of note." —Joanne Silberner, radio reporter

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