NPR’s new global health beat blends social media, traditional reporting

As news organizations experiment more with social networking sites, many are realizing that social media has to be an integral part of how we gather news, tell stories and develop beats.

NPR’s new global health and development beat is a good example of a hybrid approach to storytelling, one that places just as much emphasis on social media as it does on shoe-leather reporting.

NPR has hired an associate producer, Michaeleen Doucleff, who will work with reporter Jason Beaubien to build an audience for the beat through social media and multimedia. The beat, which is part of NPR’s Science Desk, is supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation.

A new & better way to tell global health stories

Joe Neel, deputy senior supervising editor and a correspondent on the Science Desk, said the global health and development beat is helping NPR’s science team reshape the way it approaches stories.

“We have covered global health and development issues over the years, but we were really looking for a way to tell stories in a different way,” he said by phone. “A lot of media organizations have shed their global health reporters and reduced the amount of time they’re spending on it, and there was some feeling that the reporting had become formulaic. We looked at what we were doing and said, ‘Let’s find a new way.’”

Jason Beaubien

The beat is designed for Beaubien to travel abroad and talk face-to-face with people who are affected by diseases such as AIDS and polio. The goal, Beaubien said by phone, is to put a human face on global health issues. A month into the job, he’s already traveled to Botswana, Brazil, Kenya and South Africa for a series on AIDS.

“If we need to get somewhere, we’re going to get there and see how an issue is affecting people in distant parts of the world. I think that is going to make these stories that much more powerful,” said Beaubien, who was formerly NPR’s Mexico City correspondent. (Carrie Kahn, who previously reported for NPR West, is taking his former spot.)

Beaubien, who was previously an NPR foreign correspondent, admits: “I really have no background in science, so this is pushing me in a lot of different ways.” His editor, Neel,  thinks that’s a good thing. “I really wanted to bring in a fresh set of eyes who could see things that we may not otherwise see from a science perspective,” he said.

Global health and development is a complex beat that involves health, science and international coverage. And it’s a beat that you don’t find in many newsrooms, which have cut back on science and international coverage in recent years. New York Times science writer Natalie Angier told Poynter a few years ago that the science beat was “basically going out of existence.”

In a July 2009 Pew study, 76 percent of scientists surveyed said news reports fail to make distinctions between research results that are well-founded and those that aren’t. About half of those surveyed said the media oversimplify scientific issues. There’s a need, then, for coverage that makes these issues easy to understand without dumbing them down.

Use multimedia & social media to generate interest

Mark Stencel, managing editor for digital news at NPR, said multimedia projects will be a key part of helping readers understand global health issues.

“We’re pretty selective in how and where we choose to do in-depth multimedia work, in part because just doing radio and digital is enough of a multimedia channel. But there are a handful of areas that have been home-runs in multimedia — investigative, music and science,” Stencel said by phone. “Science is definitely one of the places where we’ve been investing in multimedia.”

Michaeleen Doucleff

Part of Doucleff’s role as an associate producer is to create multimedia projects for the beat. She’s already created some, including a slideshow on how HIV attacks the immune system. She’s also written blog posts about topics such as vampire bat bites, condoms and fake poop. (Yes, you read that right.) She’s currently designing a Web page where all of the global health tweets, stories and comments will be archived.

Additionally, Doucleff runs the Twitter account @nprGlobalHealth and uses it to generate interest in Beaubien’s stories and other stories on the beat. She’s also planning to use Storify, Tumblr and other social networking sites to tell stories.

“I am really looking forward to seeing how well Twitter works, not only as a source of interesting stories and people, but also as a tool for integrating NPR into the thriving global health community there,” said Doucleff, who previously worked at the science journal Cell. “We want to be a voice in the discussion there, as well as a sounding board.”

Unlike Beaubien, Doucleff has a strong science background; she earned her master’s degree in horticulture and agronomy and has a doctorate in biophysics. Like Beaubien, she’s a good storyteller and understands how social media enhances storytelling.

“I think my favorite part [of the job], which also seems like one of the hardest, is engaging people in an important topic that they traditionally don’t want to pay attention to,” Doucleff said via email. “Some of the global health issues can be hard to swallow, but I want to use the power of social media and new media formats to get people’s attention and to get them interested.”

Social media, Stencel said, is helping to inform both the global health beat team and its audience. And it’s enabling NPR to have a global presence.

“Nothing quite beats being on the ground. But no news organization can be everywhere. Social media multiplies our capacity by allowing us to listen in on and participate in active discussions around the world, many of which will inform where we go and what we do when we get there,” Stencel said.

“At the same time, these globe-spanning discussions are important in and of themselves. Activists, researchers, front-line health workers and public health officials in hot spots around the world are sharing information — communicating and convening continuously in a way that in the past might have happened more slowly, if at all. If those same people gathered for, say, a global health summit, we’d want to be there. Following those conversations in social media IS being there.”

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  • CBeckwith

    As much as I love convergence and as much as I love Beaubien’s reporting, I hope NPR hands the mic over to Doucleff sometimes. I cringe to think that more and more social media and web work in public radio are becoming “pink-collar” jobs. Also, with all the work she’s doing, someone needs to promote Doucleff to Producer.

  • http://twitter.com/jamesian Sally James

    There is a grant-supported global health and development blog based in Seattle.
    http://humanosphere.kplu.org/

  • Anonymous

    Mallary – thanks for this great write up … you rightfully highlight
    what’s new, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that NPR’s existing
    global health team is also still very much on the job – correspondent
    Richard Knox in Boston and, of course, our large international staff —
    Joe Neel