Hashtags and Press Boxes at the WHA

By Jessica

It has been an incredible and immensely valuable experience for me to be able to attend the 68th World Health Assembly and visit the international organizations throughout Geneva! From the wealth of knowledge being dispersed in the committees to the discussions at WHA side events to the brilliant and driven people we have met at many of the organizations, the past two weeks have been a whirlwind for me. I have learned an immeasurable amount and could not be more motivated to advocate and work for health in the world.

One thing I have learned is that advocacy takes many forms, and while increasing awareness in the public about an issue is required, this is a very complicated process. In the developing world, one of the best ways to reach people or bring attention to an issue is through the media. However, as has been made increasingly clear throughout the WHA, the press has a complicated role in global health work and advocacy. For example, during the ebola technical briefing, Director-General (DG) Margaret Chan addressed the room, including a handful of members of the press, saying that we should not take the slowing of ebola stories in the media to indicate a slowing of the actual ebola crisis. In response to this criticism, a few members of the press core loudly sneered at the DG. While the science and health communities often express frustration and distrust toward the media, I was still shocked by this open contempt from both parties that need each other for continued progress in their respective fields.

Ebola Technical Briefing

Journalism is meant to keep accountability, raise awareness, and inform the public. Its powerful role in agenda setting, as described by many speakers throughout the week, could be harnessed for the good of the public health. Yet, I have realized that sometimes these goals are complicated by the need to sell papers and therefore often conflict with public health. As someone who loves to read and watch the news, greatly admires journalists, and would secretly like to write journalistic articles as a side job, this conflicting interests is something I have thought a lot about.

To me, the press and the global health community could be amazing partners for change, yet they fail at it because of a lack of understanding of each other’s field. Instead of being seen as a partner, the media is often considered a hindrance to public health. For instance, following the exaggerated media response of the ebola epidemic in the United States last year, the press was widely criticized by the public health community and distrust was continued. In our class discussions with Katherine DeLand, the Chief-of-Staff of the WHO Ebola Response Team, the lack of competence of the health sector by the press became clear. DeLand described the need for drama in the press and the misunderstanding of public health systems. According to Deland, journalists have asked DG Chan multiple times why she has not yet resigned following the ebola mishaps and failures of the WHO response. From the perspective of the WHO and many of those in public health, having a change in leadership during the continuing ebola crisis, the recovery following the Nepal Earthquake, and the long-term conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and the DRC, is “the last thing we need.”

This misunderstanding of the press and rather the need for drama made me began to think about who should be informing the public regarding health. Should it be journalists who are trained in communication and writing? Or those trained in health disparities, cultural competency, and health education? This is not an easy question but a vastly important one. DeLand even argued that if she or any of her team had time to write, they should be writing op-eds, not scholarly articles. While having public health experts take over all of the health-related media content may not be practical, it is important that the right information at the right quantity be given to the public. In my opinion, this is a key responsibility of public health professionals and they should, in turn, be the ones writing health journalism. This, however, also requires the goals of health journalism to change, disregarding the need for sales and focusing solely on the goal of informing the public to health concerns.

As students and soon to be professionals in this field, I think it is increasingly important that we practice our communication to the public for this very reason, whether it is through the media or through more citizen journalist methods, such as Twitter. As social media, specifically Twitter, has become increasingly popular, it can be used for health and advocacy work by informing the public in real time. It allowed me to follow many WHA sessions simultaneously. One afternoon at the WHA, for example, there were 4 sessions taking place simultaneously, While I attended a meeting regarding the Nepal Earthquake briefing, using Twitter I was able to follow the discussions and on climate change, the proposed timeline negotiations for polio eradication, and the issues facing adolescent girls health status throughout the world. Coincidently, this is also how I found out that DG Chan was extremely busy that afternoon, making brief appearances in all 4 sessions. While it was difficult at first, I ended up very much enjoying tweeting about the WHA and was grateful for this class requirement. I felt like it made me not only learn to efficiently and concisely articulate my thoughts, but also pick out key phrases and statistics from a sea of information. These skills are important when addressing general audiences and increasing knowledge and attention to key components of your message.

As future public health professionals, we must remember that while we work and serve the public, we must also keep them involved and aware of the issues. Whether it is through the press, as the press, or as tweeters, we play a major role in increasing knowledge and awareness that we must continually be conscious.