Learning from Public Health 2.0
Andre Blackman's conception of public health casts a huge net. He thinks about environments and neighborhoods, data and medicine. He laments the fast food restaurants that fill the spaces of low-income communities, and the parks and fresh produce that do not. "It's a cycle," he says, and one that makes it hard to achieve good health.
People are important, and in the "mindofandre" as his online moniker goes, so are the virtual spaces they inhabit. Blackman is the author of Pulse + Signal, a three-year-old blog that focuses on new media and public health, which he believes have extraordinary potential to reach audiences en-masse. Blackman earned a degree in public and community health from the University of Maryland in College Park and went on to work with nonprofits organizations, the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Institutes of Health to improve their communications strategies. He has also worked in public relations and with a company that focuses specifically on social media campaigns. Now based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Blackman recently struck out on his own as "Public Health 2.0" consultant.
Social media, the mobile space in particular, are great equalizers for information, Blackman says. Low-income communities access online content with their cell phones, and at schools and libraries, but interact and engage with that content. He cites programs such as Community Voice Mail, which provides consistent telephone numbers to people who cannot afford to keep them, and a federal program called Lifeline, which offers subidized cell phone service to those who qualify for assistance. These kinds of programs can help break cycles of poverty and poor health.
In a phone conversation, I asked Blackman how these kinds of ideas might work for health journalists and media organizations. The transcript is edited for length and clarity.
Q: Do you think that health journalists and news organizations are meeting their tech potential?
It's definitely a new world for journalism, so a lot of people are really trying to understand how to use these tools. I know many journalists are using Twitter to get information and breaking news and to try to keep track of issues and topics and key players. I think it's especially important for health journalism because there are a lot of important and innovative things going on, and I believe good health journalists can make use of these tools to interact with the ever-increasing health 2.0 community online. [One great resource is] the e-patients movement, which empowers patients to make use of these tools and be aware of these systems to help their own health. Right now, I think health journalists are still learning to use these tools. Once we get some "best practices" into place and get a couple of great people using these tools to set examples, I think we can begin to see them meet their potential.
Q: One of the things journalists think about when they think of social media and the online sphere is that while there is great potential to get a lot of information, there is also great potential to spread a lot of misinformation. Do you have any thoughts for journalists who are concerned about sourcing or spreading misinformation?
They had a panel on this at the recent "South by Southwest" (SXSW) event in Texas discussing citizen journalism and misinformation and credibility. [Blackman moderated a panel called "When Swine Flew" about the new media response to H1N1.] I think this is a very important topic to address. One of the important things to keep in mind is to look for the authorities and credible sources to combine with citizen journalism or social media. I think in health it is even more important that information is on-point and correct. Looking at experts in the field such as CDC or NIH-those kinds of examples of sources would be great to connect with to verify any kind of information that comes out [of social media].
Q: While many journalists have embraced new technology, there are others who have been in the field for a long time who are concerned about how the industry is changing. For themselves, the idea of real-time updates, public personas, and constantly learning technology, new software is really very daunting, as well as more philosophical concerns about privacy and reliability of information. What advice would you offer to journalists who hesitate to join or use social media and new technology in their reporting?
This is a great time for information. There are credible sources using social media and it's one of those things where you have to do your homework on the space and how to use the tools properly. Staying connected with the people who are rising as leaders in various spaces-you have certain bloggers who develop credibility and a great influence in the space-can be very beneficial to reporting. Start looking at these tools for your own personal use and try to figure out how it can be helpful in the professional world.
I would say that journalists should keep in mind that these technologies-whether Twitter is going to be gone in a couple of years and something else will pop up in its place-are here to stay and not shun them based on the idea that they may be inherently misleading. A lot of great and incredible things come out using these social media tools. I would say once again to keep in mind the credibility of sources and not to be one of those journalists who jumps on the bandwagon of stories that they may see break on Twitter or Facebook.
Q: Do you come across clients, companies or nonprofits that have similar hesitations about social media and new media?
Absolutely. It's still fairly new. I know a lot of people who have been blogging or been on Twitter for a little while who tend to stay in that bubble. But it's still, in my mind, relatively new for many organizations. You still have the stigma that social media is just the kids, or it's complicated. Once you break it down and show the value, I've been seeing a lot of people become less hesitant and see the value of breaking into this world.
Q: What technology is most exciting to you as a consumer and creator of news?
I'm really interested and passionate about video right now, going out to the field and seeing where the stories are rather than depending than 300-page reports from various sources. It's really interesting to see how video and digital storytelling-having someone in a community discuss their story-is going to be a great tool in the journalism world. It really humanizes the news and exposes a deeper layer of insight into a story.
On the other side, I really enjoy Twitter mainly because of the information stream that comes out. You have to continually look at the credibility of sources, but it really is a great way to gain insight into what is going on in certain parts of the world.
With health, there's a great, dynamic diabetes community. They are very active about education and empowering diabetes patients to live better. One of my favorite examples is Amy Tenderich's Diabetes Mine website. She just recently launched the 2010 Design Challenge which brings together entrepreneurs, designers, technologists, people from all walks of life and careers to come up with useful ways to make life better for the diabetes community. They'll design various devices and what-have-you, but that's something that is pretty big news in the health world, in my opinion. It shows that a community is coming together-including people from outside the diabetes community-to really make a difference. Those are the kinds of news items that I would really love to cover and get a video that's powerful because, once again, it provides a deeper layer of understanding of the news story.
Q: One of your recent posts was about an "e-Patient movement," the idea that over time people will have access to a lot more information that is gives them agency in their own health and health care. You said the ideas "began focus on the patient, the individual, as someone taking responsibility for their health; as someone who actually wanted to understand what was going on." Do you think that the media, health journalists in particular, are undergoing a similar transformation? That readers are starting to have more control over how their information and journalists, like doctors, will have less authority?
I think there definitely is a transformation going on but I definitely don't want journalists to feel like they are a dying breed. I think that the way that journalism is happening and the alliances and partnerships that are taking place are changing. I was looking at the television revolution where a lot of consumers are able to record what they watch. When Tivo came about, that was the first layer of control that consumers had over TV-watching. They didn't have to be home at a certain time to watch a show. Now a lot of shows are online with sites such as Hulu and YouTube.
I think right now with the news, there are so many sources of information that consumers are now able to create their own streams of news rather than depend on the evening news or the newspaper. Consumers are changing the way they cherry-pick information, but journalists, especially health journalists have an opportunity to tap into the changes that are going on with communities that are very dynamic. Creating partnerships, reaching out and letting these online constituents know that this journalism is coming from a credible source-people still respect that. I really think that going out and finding the news, being investigative, is still something that is important. It may be overlooked right now because people want things in real-time, but I think that in the health world it is still quality over quantity. I want that to be at the forefront of how health journalism works in the future. Things are changing but there are definitely opportunities in digital and social media for traditional investigative journalism to come out on top.
[From the Robert Wood Johnson Foundaton's Pioneer Portfolio, shared on Pulse + Signal.]
Q: This is your chance to speak to a large cohort of health journalists. Is there anything else you want them to know?
I'm a big proponent of what I call Public Health 2.0, which engages the community and uses all these tools. At the same time, it's all about breaking down silos in the public health community and working together to move things forward for better health. In my mind public health has an opportunity to start working with other fields and backgrounds, such as design, green environmental movements, as well as looking at the built environment-building communities with gardens, access to local food, which is a big issue when it comes to lower-income communities that are surrounded by fast food restaurants. The more that we can start engaging other disciplines to really create a different world of public health, the more things will start changing for the better. Covering those kinds of stories, crossing over and figuring out, 'How does this actually impact health?' will bring other ways of understanding and really make things a lot more collaborative.