HEALTH AND MEDICAL REPORTING
The birth of medical journalism in Australia can be attributed to an article on smallpox written by the Principal Colonial Surgeon, Dr Thomas Jamison, published in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser on 14 October 1804.
In the early days of the Australian press, medical advertising was a key source of revenue and contention. One criticism was that advertisements and columns promoting ‘quack’ remedies were often difficult to distinguish from news stories. By 1920, the Sydney Morning Herald directed all medical advertisements to a doctor, and would not accept any from unqualified persons.
Health and medical issues were often topics of exposés. Truth’s exposure of quackery in the1940s and 1950s involved reporters disguising themselves as patients with bogus complaints. In 1946, the Melbourne Herald published one of the first investigations into the state of psychiatric hospitals, which involved a journalist disguising himself as a doctor. In the 1920s, the Citizens’ Liberty League’s use of newspapers to criticise psychiatry drew attention to wrongful commitment.
Newspapers and magazines began to include specialised sections on health issues and advice columns involving medical experts in the 1920s. The Australian Woman’s Mirror (1924–61) often discussed health-related topics, and by 1929 women’s pages in the Sunday press included health and beauty care. The Sydney Morning Herald initiated its own ‘Tell Me, Doctor’ column in the 1940s. Between 1941and 1952, Woman employed Dr Norman Haire (aka ‘Wykeham Terriss’) as a sex education columnist. From 1960 to 1969, a semi-regular section in the Australian Women’s Weekly included advice articles reprinted from American Medical Association publications, and since the 1970s the magazine has hosted several columns dealing with health. Today, most capital city newspapers employ specialist.
While Dr Haire’s columns on sex in women’s magazines escaped the eye of the censors, his advocacy of greater use of contraception in a 1944 debate on ABC Radio led parliament to decide he should be denied access to the ABC. The battle over sex education broadcasts continued from 1944 to 1946, with the Postmaster-General banning broadcasts on venereal disease and sex. ABC broadcasts on tuberculosis were also censored in 1948 and 1953.
Radio broadcasting on health has a long history. By the late 1920s, 2KY Sydney was broadcasting on health topics and by the 1930s health professionals were participating. Between the 1940s and 1960s, various health-related programs were broadcast on commercial radio. In 1956, physician Major-General (Sir) Frank Kingsley Norris presented a series of health talks nationally on the ABC. In 1966, 2GB Sydney Sydney began At Your Service, an hour-long program in which experts responded to listeners’ questions. ABC Radio’s Hospital Half Hour was first broadcast in 1938 and in 1966 became the Hospital Hour, hosted by Garry Ord. The program finished in 1975. In 1967, Dr Earle Hackett (acting chairman of the ABC in 1975) broadcast the first of a series of health talks and went on to host ABC’s The Body Programme in the 1970s.
Dr John Knight (‘Dr James Wright’) was a prominent radio and television doctor in the 1980s, who continues to broadcast a daily health tip on commercial radio as well as providing online medical advice. Specialist commercial radio health programs include 2UE’s Healthy Living with Dr Ross Walker and 3AW’s Talking Health with Dr Sally Cockburn (‘Dr Feelgood’), both of which are syndicated. ABC Radio National broadcasts The Health Report (1985– ) with Dr Norman Swan and All in the Mind with Natasha Mitchell.
The arrival of television expanded opportunities for public health education and ‘infotainment’. Television news and current affairs programs routinely broadcast medical ‘breakthrough’ and ‘scare’ stories. The ABC’s Bodyshow series (1988) is believed to be the first program dedicated to health on Australiantelevision. A 1998 ABC series, Too Much Medicine, raised questions about the practices and commercialisation of medicine. Health- and lifestyle-related topics have also been the focus of programs such as Network Ten’s Healthy, Wealthy and Wise (1992–98) and the Nine Network’s Good Medicine (1997–2001) and What’s Good for You (2006–09). Other shows include Beyond 2000 (1985–99) and ABC’s Quantum (1985–2001) and Catalyst (2001– ). Norman Swan also hosted Health Dimensions on ABC in 2001 and currently hosts Tonic on ABC News 24. Dr John D’Arcy has a regular segment on the Seven Network’s Sunrise and occasionally reports for Today Tonight in addition to his syndicated radio programs Health Check and Health Matters.
The turn of the century saw several new health magazine launches. Titles include Nature and Health (launched as a newsletter in 1979 and a bi-monthly magazine in 1994), Wellbeing (1984– ), Women’s Health & Fitness (1994– ), Good Medicine (1998– , now Good Health) and Men’s Health (1997– ). Specialist magazines targeting specific conditions include Diabetic Living (2005– ) and Heart Healthy Living (2006–10),which continues as HeartHealthyOnline.com. In 1998, News Limited’s Sunday papers began publishing the Body & Soul supplement, and in 2011, the Sun-Herald launched S.Well. Online and social media have also created new opportunities to disseminate health information.
Another arm of publishing includes journals for medical practitioners, the first of which was the Australian Medical Journal (1846–47). A series of journals came and went before two were amalgamated in 1914 to form the Medical Journal of Australia. Medical magazines include Australian Doctor (1984– ) and Medical Observer (1987– ), both of which incorporate considerable pharmaceutical advertising.
A notable example of online news and current affairs reporting is Croakey, which emerged in 2008 out of collaboration between public health advocates and Crikey. ABC Health & Wellbeing (started as Health Matters in 2002) is the online gateway to health and medical content on ABC Radio and Television, while The Pulse (2004– ) is an online weekly health and medical news column.
Health and medical reporting has been recognised with numerous Walkley Awards, including Best News Story in 1961 to the Brisbane Courier-Mail’s Arthur Richards for his exposure of the poor state of Queensland’s public hospitals and in 1970 to Truth journalist Evan Whitton for his exposure of an abortion racket scandal. The West Australian’s Catherine Martin won four Walkleys, including the inaugural Gold Walkley (1978) for her investigation into mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases among mine workers. Martin also won eight media awards from the Australian Medical Association. In 1982, Kerry O’Brien won the Gold Walkley and the award for Best Television Current Affairs Report for his ATN7 documentary on the health effects of widely used chemicals. The 1986 Radio News Report award went to the ABC’s Gavin Gilchrist for his exposure of medical fraud and in 1987 a team at 2MMM won the award for Best Radio Current Affairs Report for a story about AIDS. Norman Swan won the 1988 Gold Walkley for his investigation into allegations of medical fraud against Dr William McBride.
Doubts persist about the adequacy of lay media as a forum for the discussion of complex medical issues. Problems with reporting include a lack of accuracy, hype about the impact of new treatments, and failure to exercise scepticism. Several initiatives have been developed to monitor and improve coverage. In April 2001, the Australian Press Council issued a guideline for the print media’s reporting of health and medical matters. In 2002, resource kits for reporting suicide and mental illness were made available to journalists and journalism educators as part of the Commonwealth government’s Mindframe National Media Initiative.
REFs: A. Bashford and C. Strange, ‘Public Pedagogy:Sex Education and Mass Communication in the Mid-Twentieth Century’, Jnl of the History of Sexuality, 13(1) (2004); P. Martyr, Paradise of Quacks (2002); R.B. Walker, The Newspaper Press in New South Wales, 1803–1920 (1976).