BU Program on Crisis Response and Reporting Launches Global Student Newsroom

March 7, 2013

By Mike Trinh

With its new project to send eights students from Boston University to Kenya to report on foreign aid, the Program on Crisis Response and Reporting aims to further strengthen the relationship between public health professionals and journalists.

The two fields don’t always get along. The story often goes like this: Public health professionals don’t talk to journalists because journalists “always” get the facts wrong or they sensationalize their findings in an attempt to humanize what are often dull statistical study results. And journalists can “never” get their story right because public health professionals won’t help them.

Two years ago, the Program on Crisis Response and Reporting was created to explore the intersection of public health and journalism, particularly at times of crisis. As a partnership among the BU School of Public Health, Center for Global Health & Development and College of Communication, one goal of the program was to promote greater collaboration between the two fields.

“We’re embodying this BU message, blending the skills and expertise with two parts of the university and creating a new entity,” says Prof. Elizabeth Mehren, one of the four originators of the program, along with Anne Donohue, Jen Beard and Monica Onyango.

When the program first started in 2010, it partnered with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to send students to work with experienced journalists at the organization’s Washington D.C. office and then abroad in the summer to report on global health issues.

In 2011, Anna Tomasulo (SPH) covered human rights issues in Nepal. Last summer, Jason Hayes (SPH) and Meghan Dhaliwal (COM) went to Haiti to document the cholera outbreak following the country’s earthquake.

Their stories have appeared on Huffington Post as well as the Pulitzer Center website.

And last year, the Program on Crisis Response and Reporting applied for and received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its Pamoja Together Project that sent eight BU students to Kenya this summer where they worked for three weeks with Kenyan college students to develop and report on foreign aid stories.

Jon Sawyer, director of the Pulitzer Center, says pairing public health and journalism students helps both sides do better jobs.

“I know it’s making the journalists better and I hope it’s making the public health professionals better as well.”

After its positive experience with BU’s program, the Pulitzer Center is now looking to work with more universities to send students to report on international health stories.

Sawyer says the mutually beneficial partnership only works if public health understands that journalists need to tell the stories of a few individuals as a means to address an overarching issue. But in return, journalists should never sacrifice the larger important issue in order to tell a personal story.

“You need to understand both sides,” he says. “You need to dramatize and simplify a story without distorting and confusing the real issue.”

Prof. Jen Beard, another head of the Program on Crisis Response and Reporting, says public health specialists need someone to report the important stories. They can talk about an issue using scientific papers, policy memos, data, and numbers. But abstract facts alone don’t tell a story that everyday people can relate to.

“There are many insane things that we want to talk about, but we don’t know how to talk about them,” says Beard.

She adds that public health’s distrust of the media stems from a minority of reporters who seem to care more about drama than facts and who do not represent all journalists.

“Public health people are often suspicious of journalists because they focus on a group of sensational journalists.”

Each side needs the other to do their jobs effectively and so they have to develop a sense of trust with each other.

“That’s what we’re trying to do by pairing School of Communication students and School of Public Health students,” says Beard.

Unfortunately, the number of journalists covering global health issues has shrunk along with today’s news media, says Prof. Mehren.

“So many news outlets are pulling back on foreign coverage,” she says. “These stories aren’t being told and public health is an important story of this era.”

Mehren adds that the BU program can change this trend by improving the quality of global health reporting. To do so, it will need to get public health and journalism to work together, not against each other.

In just over two years, the Program on Crisis Response and Reporting has grown from an idea to a large-scale learning experience for many BU students. And if the Kenya project reaches a set of challenges set by the Gates Foundation, it will be eligible to receive $1 million grant next year to expand even more.

“No pressure, right?” says Mehren.