Journalism in the Twitter Age: How Health Care Partners Can Help Shape Stories

Contributed by Hinna Hatif and Neil Faba, OntarioMD Communications and Marketing 

As communications professionals with journalism backgrounds, we’ve both had a front-row seat to rapid change in the industry. In our case, we’re also focused on the changes that digital health has brought to the health care system. From the advent of online media to social media’s proven ability to put storytelling in the hands of those directly involved in the stories, the media landscape has shifted significantly over just two decades.

Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms are shaking up many other industries, too, including health care. Today, many physicians and other health care professionals are active social media users, portraying their passion for the industry and its advancements in patient care via photos and videos, posts and tweets.

To better understand the way digital and social technology is shifting traditional and digital health care as well as journalism, we recently attended a panel discussion titled Healthcare Journalism in the Age of Twitter, hosted by Longwoods Publishing as part of their Breakfast with the Chiefs series. The panel included two journalists representing different generations and media institutions: Andre Picard a reporter and health policy columnist at The Globe and Mail for more than 30 years; and Rachel Browne, a Senior Reporter at Vice News who’s just a few years into her career. The discussion was moderated by Judith Jones, a patient advocate and communications specialist who was the keynote speaker at OntarioMD’s EMR: Every Step Conference last fall in Toronto. Andre’s name is almost synonymous with health care on Twitter, with more than 70,000 people following his account @picardonhealth.  Rachel, who covers a broad range of health and other topics, is also a very active user as the author of more than 10,000 tweets on her account @rp_browne.

The discussion started out with some thoughts on how news agencies are faring in this changing landscape, while faced with cutbacks, financial pressures, and increasing competition to capture people’s attention. While The Globe and Mail and Vice Media have different histories and cater to very different audiences, the two journalists on the panel agreed that they share a lot of commonality when it comes to their struggles In the face of these challenges.

We’re living in a time where we have near instant access to more information than ever before. On the other hand, we’re barraged by fake news and incorrect information that is sometimes even reported by reliable news outlets because of the competition and demand the 24/7 news cycle brings.

“For people who know how to use the media, it’s the greatest time in history right now,” commented Andre Picard. “You can get everything you want and more. For those who are not interested, which is a growing segment of the population, it’s a waste land of fake news. It’s a dichotomy that’s troubling that one group is getting much larger and the other group is not.” As chilling as this sentiment seems, Rachel Browne offered a glimmer of hope: “there is a strong desire now more than ever for good quality content that’s different, that’s approachable, that’s informative, that’s going to stay and inform the reader beyond just reading the article, and maybe even inform policy decisions.”

Both Andre and Rachel agreed that for the public to get accurate, good quality information from media outlets – particularly when it comes to important subjects like health care where people’s lives literally hang in the balance –  journalists need to be able to get their hands-on quality data on key issues like the opioid crisis. But this is often difficult, or – in the case of opioids where few reliable national stats exist – impossible.  Rachel and Andre advised the audience – comprised mostly of members of the health care industry – to work closely with journalists, PR people and others to help fill in the gaps and tell the stories that need to reach Canadians.

The panellists offered some useful tips on how health care communicators and industry leaders could work collaboratively with journalists to help share information that can drive policy decisions:

  • Form collaborative working relationships with journalists, to understand what issues are on their radar. Many large media outlets have project editors, who can share which topics are being considered for long-term reporting projects and can help organizations understand how they can help shape the story;
  • Understand media outlets’ different audiences, and tailor pitches accordingly. With so many news outlets focused on specific target audiences, understanding how different media focus their reporting can help you tailor your messaging;
  • Facilitate journalists’ access to patients who are willing to tell their health care stories, to add a human face to the issue. At the same time, it’s important that communications people prep those patients so they understand the extra attention they may receive by sharing their experiences.

To listen to the whole panel discussion, please click here.



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