Perspectives from journalist Nicholas Kristof, New York Times
One of the issues that receives the worst coverage in the media is public health. Thus began Nicholas Kristof who has extensively covered public health problems in developing countries in his New York Times column. Unlike breaking news of the moment, there is no daily story or event with this ongoing crisis to command media attention. In fact, these and other issues that really do matter, do not have the marketing force behind them to get the attention of the media or public. “It’s more important to market zinc [for health] than coca-cola,” he said.
Noting that while tens of thousands of people were being slaughtered in Darfur, New Yorkers and the media were more concerned about the plight of two red-tailed hawks that were evicted from their lofty Fifth Avenue nest. This led Kristof to investigate why people care about certain things, but not others.
He found that it’s important to first make an emotional connection with your audience rather than a rational connection. Furthermore, stories of one individual tend to be more powerful; once you speak of greater numbers suffering, you lose empathy. So putting this in practice, once you’ve opened that pathway you can then follow through with more information and context.
As the media struggles to find a new business model, and cuts back on overseas coverage to save costs, the nutrition community will need to work harder to get its stories in front of the press. People also want to be part of something positive but NGOs often focus on “suffering rather than solutions."
All this requires a change from business as usual. Working with celebrities to shine the spotlight on your cause is one way. Online games, videos and other web strategies are new ways to engage with audiences who may not read a newspaper column. Humor, when appropriate, also works well.
Terms or slogans that that are more user-friendly are also needed—it’s hard to gain traction with non-scientific audiences using terms like ‘micronutrients’ or ‘MDGs’.
With increasing competition for coverage, NGOs will also have to develop greater expertise —not just in knowing the issues at the grassroots —but also "seeing the bigger picture from 30,00 feet."
Please leave a comment to share your thoughts on Kristof’s keynote, and how to get public health issues in the media spotlight!