By Ted Bruce
Those of us in the public health community often complain about the media failing to highlight key public health issues. We beat ourselves up about not framing issues in terms that will get attention or “traction” with the public and decision-makers. You may have noted lately some pretty fine coverage of the impact of inequality and poverty on health. The recent Globe and Mail series on inequality and the front page article in the November 21 issue of the Vancouver Sun on food deprivation in school children represent very mainstream media efforts that clearly set out the need to address the social determinants of health.
To some extent this coverage represents just how bad the situation is becoming in an environment where governments essentially abandon their role to invest in the well-being of communities and are obsessed with reducing taxes. But the good news is that it also represents a story about the persistence of public health in raising awareness. If we consider the type of coverage on poverty that we are seeing in the media, there seems to be some significant attention to the need for action to address poverty and the broader social determinants of health. But the political elite still seems stuck in what many say is a completely discredited idea of “trickledown” economics and they sell this message to the public.
Similarly, while the media is getting better at highlighting the issue of the health impacts of poverty, they fall down on what should be done about it. Generally they highlight a charitable model for solving this broad social problem. The Vancouver Sun article is tied in with the idea of people adopting-a-school to help out. While charity is important in our society, it has never been and will never be a solution to socially constructed poverty and inequality. In attempting to critique the shortcomings of the charitable model for poverty reduction, the Public Health Association of BC was part of a campaign to encourage the CBC to host a “right to food day” as a balance to the very extensive effort they make to their food bank donation campaign at Christmas. The rationale for this was very clearly articulated in a piece by Graham Riches in the Vancouver Sun. Was the CBC interested? No.
So the mission is not yet complete. Good on the media when they deliver thoughtful and passionate stories about public health. Now it is time to turn our attention to the myths about why action is not affordable and hold our political leaders to account.
– Ted Bruce is the past-President of the PHABC