The West Australian enjoys a unique monopoly amongst Australia’s daily newspapers. As the state’s only daily broadsheet voice, who determines what health and medical issues are covered and how? We spoke to Ruth Callaghan, The West’s Editor of ?Health and Medicine’ – an eight page colour supplement sponsored by Healthway, which is published each Wednesday.
A long time West reporter (11 years), Ruth’s writing experience includes finance, commercial property, general news, court reporting, and subediting, but now she works in the creative realm of feature writing.
As head of Health and Medicine for the past two years, she has driven a preventative health focus, while producing and developing themes for each edition and assigning journalists story topics.
“The beauty of health as a news reporting round is that it’s always new, always controversial, and has an extremely large appeal,” she says.
“The West’s health reporters in general news are entirely driven by topical events, hospital queues, or comments made by the health minister or coronial inquest. But we tend to be more topic or idea driven and I want each of our writers to personally learn something in the process of reporting a story so we ensure the reader doesn’t just come away with motherhood statements.”
Ruth believes a couple of years ago there was a sense that all the money would be in alternative health and so readers would be satisfied if the medical message was diluted and included all types of alternative health, complementary health, and surgical health in one publication.
“There’s been a move away from that now and people recognise that there’s a medical side to things and that there’s a role to play for alternative health and the best approach is to keep them separate.”
The subject of Healthway, the section’s sponsor, exerting influence over advertising content (in favour of traditional medicine) is a matter Ruth refutes.
“There is a role for non-traditional medical care and alternative medical services but just as we’re very careful in choosing our editorial to make sure that we don’t give readers the false impression about the safety, security, or research nature of a medical treatment, we’re anxious that we’re not having advertising that is dangerous to their health.”
A few years ago, Healthway developed the ?Health and Medicine’ section with the West Australian, and “then organised to have a consortium of people who would not write but be there as a reference point if we needed them.”
Despite Healthway’s sponsorship, Ruth believes advertising and sponsorship exert minor influences on the supplement’s content. While she says sponsorship doesn’t have an influence on what they write, she concedes it can influence the perspective they take.
“But that’s where the influence ends and then we choose the stories, the angles, and who we are going to speak to and write it up. So we take a topic and determine what are the new developments and what are the most relevant elements for the readers.”
“We talk to them [Healthway] about what we’re doing but it’s more a matter of informing them rather than being informed.”
So how does the West approach the crucial process of research and reporting when tackling issues such as abortion, obesity, and organ donation?
“Choosing heart disease over nano technology is subjective but in the article itself we do an awful lot of first hand research. We sometimes wade through an 80 page report to try to figure out five lines in a story.”
“We specifically deal with medical practitioners who we know are registered and have good reputations and are prepared to put their names to information rather than PR people that say this is what this doctor said. Most stories involve about 3-4 interviews and not all of them make the paper.”
“We have a number of health groups that don’t help us as much as we’d like them to but we continue to go back to them because we feel they are important representatives of their cause. The people in this area aren’t really set up to deal with the media. They are very dedicated to their area of expertise but can’t articulate what they’re doing to the broader public. This can be frustrating and requires working with them to help get their message across.”
As Editor, Ruth also deals with major health stakeholders and players and she is aware of the recent trend to throw money at medical research rather than primary care.
“I’m in favour of research and think it helps divert people from sections of the medical system because we have a better understanding of their pre-diseased state but the money needs to be spent wisely and with some sort of oversight.”
“We’ve run a few controversial stories on programs up north with aboriginal welfare people that are doing amazing things and getting no state government support and people who are getting state government support and not producing results.”
While ?Health and Medicine’ assumes some of their readers are GPs and has run previous features on GP addiction and physical threats from patients, Ruth says the focus of ?Health and Medicine’ stories will remain on a broader interest level.
“There’s a lot of people getting very excited about new research around nano technology and brain drugs but we really believe there’s a holistic nature to health and your lifestyle and seeing your GP proactively is fundamentally important to whether or not you’re going to end up with a chronic disease.”