By Ronan O’Beirne, Associate Editor
The Evidence Network, a non-partisan network of journalists and health policy researchers, recently released a series of backgrounders for journalists on health topics. J-Source spoke about them with Noralou Roos, director of EvidenceNetwork.ca and professor in the department of community health services at University of Manitoba’s College of Medicine, and Kathleen O’Grady, managing editor of EvidenceNetwork.ca and research associate at Concordia University.
J-Source: Tell us a bit about what the Evidence Network does.
NR, KO: In 2011, we were established through a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Manitoba Health Research Council and the George and Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovation (CHI) to bring together Canada’s talented journalists with Canada’s health policy researchers and create tools to enable better communication between these distinct professional fields with differing responsibilities and objectives.
We have many methods for enriching this communication, including Creative Commons health policy articles and op-eds. These commentaries have been drafted and reviewed by experts in the field to ensure balance, non-partisanship and to make sure they are based on the most current and highest quality evidence. They are then professionally edited to meet the needs of specific media outlets.
We also create videos, podcasts, posters and infographics for free media use. Our website also contains the contact details for our 80+ health policy academic experts from Canada and internationally who are ready and available for media interview.
Who is the target audience for these backgrounders?
NR, KO: The audience for backgrounders is primarily journalists; we know students use them for research primers on a specific topic too. But we create them for journalists.
Backgrounders are a new tool we created in the last year as a kind of experiment. Our independent media advisory group (made up of senior journalists from across the country) suggested backgrounders might be useful on complex health policy topics that recur in the media or on issues that we know are forthcoming in the media.
So we tried a few as an experiment, and rather rapidly, they became the most popular content on our website. We decided to respond to the clear demand and create more. We now have a dozen or so backgrounders in English and French and hope to create several more on a wide range of health policy topics in the coming months. We partner with the Science Media Centre of Canada and Troy Media to help distribute them widely.
Covering health policy issues is challenging in Canada because we have multiple jurisdictions (federal and provincial) that impact health-care funding and delivery (see our, “Five things most people get wrong about the Canada’s health care system,” recently published in The Globe and Mail). With the backgrounders, we hope to make it easy for journalists to find and fact-check key principles and up-to-date evidence on the issues.
J-Source: How does the Evidence Network decide which issues merit backgrounders? Why these new ones?
NR, KO: We select backgrounders based on topics that are already popular in the mainstream media, but also on issues we know will soon be in the national spotlight. We also create backgrounders based on what is not in the media but that our academic experts feel ought to be. We are happy to take suggestions from our readers on what to do next.
Our most popular backgrounders to date have included a wide range of topics such as prescription opioids, mental health and addictions, the obesity epidemic, the impact of the aging population on health services, court challenges to the Canada Health Accord and the fallacy of the autism-vaccine connection. New backgrounders will address the dangers of too much health care, comparisons of the Canadian health system with international health systems and the relationship between poverty and health.
J-Source: Who creates these backgrounders?
NR, KO: We hire professional writers to work with academic experts to draft the backgrounders. The drafts are then sent for peer review to academic experts in the field to get their feedback on balance, timely evidence and accessibility. We also share them with our Media Advisory Group for feedback.
J-Source: What is the benefit of these backgrounders for journalists?
NR, KO: We know journalists work to deadline and are often crafting news stories on the fly; some journalists have significant background in the health policy field, but some are new to a topic they may need to cover quickly. The backgrounders are intended to help journalists establish the context and content of a debate—without vested interests—with hyperlinks for quick fact-checking. We try to share various sides of the debate and provide links to the evidence supporting those claims.
At the end of each backgrounder we provide a list of academic experts in the field (with contact details) who are willing and able to do media interviews.
J-Source: How has the pickup been from journalists? Have you noticed an increase in the quality of health journalism?
NR, KO: Since the backgrounders are new, we haven’t yet assessed the end result of journalists using them, but have relied on Google Analytics to assess their popularity, as well as direct feedback, which has been positive. Sometimes we get helpful additions from readers, which, if based on the evidence, we are happy to include in updates to the backgrounders.
Other projects of ours, such as regularly publishing op-eds in the mainstream media (almost 400 original articles since 2011, published more than 2,000 times) have significantly increased the level of media attention to a wide variety of complex health policy issues across the country, and often, we’ve seen subsequent media pick up on a story as a result of our op-eds. We hope the backgrounders will experience the same popularity and be useful to journalists in the daily work they do.
This email interview has been condensed and edited.