How to Make Global Health News with Brian Simpson and Dayna Kerecman Myers
In this episode, Global Health Now editor-in-chief Brian Simpson and managing editor Dayna Kerecman Myers join Dr. Murphy to share practical advice for global health students, faculty, and researchers on how to work with journalists to bring their research and global health insights to a wider audience.
Topics Covered in the Show:
- Global Health Now is a daily newsletter addressing a broad spectrum of issues within the field of global health. It began in 2014 out of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and has 58,000 subscribers in 170 countries.
- The Global Health Now news team uses a variety of strategies to stay on top of the latest news, such as daily Google alerts for about 40 different topics pertinent to global and public health.
- With a mission to advance the common cause of global health, Global Health Now editors make a concerted effort to connect faculty and students at universities across the country as well as across the globe, reaching a more diverse audience.
- Simpson and Myers share their own background in journalism as well as in global and public health, and how they came to Johns Hopkins as editors of Global Health Now.
- As editors, Simpson and Myers are always looking for stories that have not received enough coverage from the mainstream media, or perhaps have an angle of a major story that the mainstream media is missing.
- For researchers who want to connect with media outlets for stories, Simpson and Myers offer practical advice for pitching, such as prioritizing the value of translating insider language for a broader audience, distilling the main message of your story, and knowing ahead of time who would be reached by the story.
- The difference between news stories that are op-eds versus stories focused on pure data are significant and can each play a major role in influencing broad cultural understandings of global health issues. This is why the Global Health Now team labels stories according to these categories.
- Simpson and Myers share the process of working with writers on their stories and brainstorming various frameworks for how best to capture the content, such as a commentary piece versus a Q&A, and how to formulate a call to action within these contexts.
- When formulating your research to have a major media impact, editors of Global Health Now suggest asking questions that can help contextualize your pitch within a narrative, asking yourself questions like: Are you breaking new ground? Is this something that people will be curious about and want to know more about? Do you have your own personal story? Is there controversy present?
Rob Murphy, MD [00:00:05] Welcome to the Explore Global Health Podcast. I'm Dr. Rob Murphy, executive director of the Havey Institute for Global Health here at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. An important part of doing global health work is what happens after you return home. Publishing research, sharing stories about the experience and the people you meet is essential to expanding knowledge, capacity and equity in global health. Today's guests are expert in the art of gathering global health news. And today they're going to share very practical advice on how to work with journalists to bring your research and global health insights to a wider audience. Brian Simpson is the editor-in-chief, and Dayna Kerecman Myers is the managing editor of Global Health, now a daily newsletter based out of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. And this newsletter is definitely a must-read publication for anyone interested in the United States and global public health. Welcome to the show, Dayna and Brian. Brian, tell me about Global Health Now. I understand you recently published your 2000th newsletter. How did this end up being 2000 newsletters? Tell us.
Brian Simpson [00:01:13] Well, it's definitely been a journey. Back in 2013, we saw the need for kind of a one-stop-shop for information about global health. As you know, there's so many, so many different fields, so many different disciplines, so many different issues within global health. To have it in one, one place is a challenge to get all of your news kind of in one place, not only with the news in your particular field, but with other fields. We talked with some folks and some experts. And and I had initially, you know, had this like very grandiose idea about a National Geographic level magazine about global health. And we got the advice to no, do a newsletter, do an email that kind of quick, easy touch on a large number of people. And you can kind of build an audience and kind of go from there. And so that's that's the genesis of Global Health Now. And we started on January 2nd, 2014.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:02:04] So can you tell us a little bit about the reach of the newsletter?
Brian Simpson [00:02:08] We reached 58,000 subscribers in 170 countries, so we've got a great reach. I think it shows that hopefully that that it's a reliable and useful daily newsletter. It comes out Monday through Friday.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:02:21] Hey, Dayna, a question for you. Can you walk us through the editorial process? How do you decide what makes it into the daily emails and where did the stories actually come from?
Dayna Kerecman Myers [00:02:31] Sure. We tried to cast a wide net. So we set up a lot of Google alerts for about 40 topics pertinent to global health and public health. We monitor those daily, and we also have a set of news sources and journal articles, journals, blogs, people who tend to write about global health issues. And we go through those sources every day, too. So we do some in advance. And then in early in the morning, we go through all of those again and pull together what we think is most important, most interesting. We try to have a mix of things from different countries and different topics, and we collect sources based on that. And then we go through and we see what is most important for that day.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:03:21] So, you're based at Bloomberg School of Public Health at Hopkins. So is it pretty heavy Hopkins oriented or is it more general? How does it work with the school?
Dayna Kerecman Myers [00:03:32] That's something that I really love about our work. We always set out with the mission to reach out to other schools. We talked to faculty and students at other schools. We check for other school's newsletters. We go through those in compiling our news also. We try to advance the common cause of global health that way. So it isn't just about what we're doing at our school, but really trying to find where there are connections and interesting opportunities.
Brian Simpson [00:04:03] The big part of the secret sauce for Global Health Now is that we're finding like the best news, the best research, the latest research and news to share. And it doesn't matter where where it's from. We're just kind of trying to decide on, you know, basically on the value of it.
Dayna Kerecman Myers [00:04:18] We also hear from a lot of readers. We have people who are involved in studies who send us notes and let us know that something's coming. So over the eight years we've been doing this, we've developed a nice network of people who share information and know about GHN and help us out that way, too. And that also makes sure that we aren't too focused on one topic or perspective.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:04:42] Can you tell us a little bit about who are your your readers?
Dayna Kerecman Myers [00:04:45] A lot of readers are faculty from various schools, students, public health practitioners and researchers. And we also have lots of people who represent NGOs or global institutes focused on health issues, the WHO. We also have everyday people, people who don't work in global health at all. But these topics cover so many different issues. It touches everybody in some way.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:05:13] Can you tell me a little bit about the stories that are the most popular?
Dayna Kerecman Myers [00:05:17] That's an evolving process. And we do very much look to see what people are interested in. We hear from people. We hear from people who don't want us to cover topics. But mostly we hear from people who care about a topic passionately and wish we covered it more. We've done surveys where we've asked people, "What do you want more of?" And when we do that, we mostly hear that people want to hear more about other countries, not just about COVID. We hear that a lot lately. It's changed a lot in the last two years in that sense.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:05:48] Yeah, we've had the same thing. We do a question and answer for COVID, you know, that was just so big. And yeah, I mean, we still I think we're going to continue with that. But, you know, there's so many other things going on.
Dayna Kerecman Myers [00:05:58] Yeah. It's it's interesting to watch how an issue becomes big. Also, I remember before the pandemic with Ebola, for example, it started off that we felt like, are we covering this too much? And then it quickly became apparent, no, this needs to be the top story every day. This is getting big, but it's interesting to see how that shakes out, too.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:06:19] Can you tell me a little bit about your own background?
Dayna Kerecman Myers [00:06:21] I started out working in different media outlets, working for foundations that are doing media development and strengthening the media overseas. Then I worked for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, where I was responsible for monitoring wires and pulling the early idea of stories, the early round of stories that would be shaped, things would change, and we would use that to put together the news summary at the top of the show. And then I did a lot of freelance science writing work on different projects, and then I worked for the Stanford University School of Medicine, the Stanford Blood Center, working on different communications projects. So that was really where I learned about the different platforms, different channels and putting together a product.
Brian Simpson [00:07:10] I, like Dana, have a mixed background. I started off in journalism as a police reporter in northwest Florida, and I returned to to Austin, where I worked in the tech industry for a while and did editing and writing there and didn't find it super satisfying and was always kind of like freelance writing along the way. And when I moved to Baltimore, I started freelancing for the School of Public Health here, for the magazine here. And in 1999, I was on a trip in Asia with my wife. I was covering a communications campaign in Uttar Pradesh in India, seeing this unfold and how it worked and using they were using traditional theater to get a message across. It was kind of like life changing for me to be there and to see, you know, kind of public health actually happening on the ground. And so I totally fell in love with public health. And after that was able to get on here at the School of Public Health at Hopkins and just got my MPH and just became totally enamored with with public health and the public health mission.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:08:09] I'd like to hear from each of you about one particular story that you featured that really kind of sticks out a memorable piece for each of you personally. Can you think of one and how it got there and what happened?
Dayna Kerecman Myers [00:08:22] The story that always stands out for me the most, and it's probably because it was our first untold global health stories contest. And I love the origin of this story. Mycetoma, the neglected disease in Sudan. We had a contest to we did this with the Consortium of Universities for Global Health and NPR's Goats and Soda. Although that came later, we started off it was just something that we did with CGH. That first year, a student from Canada submitted the idea, and it was the way that they submitted the piece. And this really speaks to if people want to get their issue or their story covered more the way that you presented, if there's a story with it, it just it makes it so much more attention grabbing. But it was very moving. They said that they had prepared briefs. They'd worked very hard on this disease to get the W.H.O. to add it to the list of neglected diseases. And they prepared the briefing and it was at the World Health Assembly. They had the classroom or the room laid out with all of their briefing packets on the table and no one came. And so to think about a neglected disease, that was really the most neglected disease that could have been in the mix that year. And so we ended up picking that. And then through that contest, it's a contest where you don't really win a lot yourself, but you get coverage for your issues. So it's to highlight an underreported topic. So as a result of that, we had the journalist Amy Maxmen go to Sudan and do a series of articles for us, and that ended up helping to bring more attention to the issue at a very critical time. And it did end up making it on the list. So that one always stands out for me as something very, very meaningful.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:10:08] Brian, what about you?
Brian Simpson [00:10:09] I'm going to pick sort of another untold story series that we did on burns in Nepal. And, you know, it's something that you just don't think about that much but in Nepal, people oftentimes will be cooking inside on the fire, inside the house. They have perhaps more than 50,000 serious burn injuries every year. We actually sent our reporter, Joanne Silberner to Nepal to cover this story into a three part series that got into, you know, sort of the human costs as well as sort of some of the solutions as well, too. That one sticks out to me because there's so many issues out there that do not get attention that that really need to. And there's so much great work going on as well for us to be able to surface some of these issues and some of the solutions is one of the things that we're most proud of.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:10:56] If somebody has like an idea, has a story, can you just submit the story? Can you tell what the process is like there?
Brian Simpson [00:11:02] Absolutely. We welcome ideas. A lot of times we'll say that that we run on ideas where they're essential to us. And and especially with something like global health, you know, there's so much so much going on and so many things have been covered that if new ideas are most welcome and usually we'll try to work to figure one out, you know how to use it one way or another. It may not be a big, big splash, but we oftentimes will work with our readers to get attention to some of these issues.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:11:27] Can you give maybe some readers some tips about an element of a good story if they want to submit to you?
Dayna Kerecman Myers [00:11:34] So if you have an idea based on something that you're interested in, or if you're a researcher or an expert wanting to write a commentary, it's a little bit different. But we're always looking for stories that haven't gotten enough coverage or that the mainstream media hasn't been interested in, or that there's some angle that isn't being picked up or that the media is missing. So we love it when people send us an idea and say, "Well, this is an important issue, but consider this element or we've been working on this and it helps to surface a different perspective." We want people to send us stories that aren't just promotional about their work, though not promotional about their organization or an issue, but really just is there something that needs to change? Is there something interesting that's happening, something innovative? Those kind of stories are our most interesting to our audience, I think.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:12:26] How important is social media?
Dayna Kerecman Myers [00:12:28] We definitely do keep an eye on that. And we look for people who are experts to follow, to give us ideas about things, to see what people are talking about. So definitely social media is important for giving us more ideas. It's also important in how we can use it in the newsletter to share other people's perspectives. We try to include tweets, partly to add a little visual break between the blocks of text in our summaries, and also as a way to include a little bit more opinion pieces.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:13:01] We became an institute just three years ago, and we have now ten centers in programs, and it's really getting pretty diverse groups moving from neurology to surgery, education, cancer, cardiovascular, everything. It's really quite broad. Can you advise our institute members what they can do to prepare themselves for interviews with the media or how to basically interact with the media, including your media? Maybe some advice for them. A lot of them have never done anything like this before.
Brian Simpson [00:13:32] The first thing to do is to recognize that you have to change your mode, your mode of thinking and interacting. When you're talking with the media or reaching out to the media, you're not reaching out to a colleague, a fellow expert in in global health or whatever discipline. And to do that, you need to do some translation as well. So you can't sort of use the insider insider speak that you do with your with your peers, but to distill things down to to the essence so that any smart layperson can understand it. And part of that is thinking about like beforehand, what do you want to get across here? Like, what's the most important thing? So distilling that message, because oftentimes the scientists are so excited about their work and they have so many, so many ideas and so many details to get across. But what you want to do is find out that the essence of the story and you want to formulate it and put it together in a way that a journalist can, you know, kind of like grab on to and say, ah, okay, now this is interesting. Oftentimes, journalists, you know, reflexively turn to their news judgment. And so what they want to know is, are a lot of people affected by this? So some kind of sense of scale. They want to know what's new right there in the news. It's always got to be new. You don't want to rehash certain things. You can formulate things as well in terms of a problem solution. So problem number of people affected by this particular disease or condition and then move right on to, you know, why your research is important and how it can make a difference. And, you know, does it play a role in the solution? People always want to know what's happening next. Where are things going to head from this? So problem, solution, future, I think. Those are, you know, kind of big tips there to to guide people. Dayna, do you have other other thoughts?
Dayna Kerecman Myers [00:15:22] Yeah. I mean, I think people might write a study if they're a scientist. It might be a very long title, for example. And they feel frustrated when they see it in the media and it's been clipped. But we're trying to package things in a way that will draw in different people. So it's a challenge always when people help us with that translation part, we can do a better job when they tell us what what matters the most about their study.
Brian Simpson [00:15:49] One other thing that that helps is having a story that goes along with it. Data are one thing that can motivate people and motivate interest, but having a story, a human story that goes along with it can be extremely powerful. And so we're talking about people who may be affected by this issue. And so researchers often, you know, know these people and work closely with them, just regular people who are dealing with these issues and to hear kind of what they go through, to hear personal stories. I can't tell you how important that is because that's like a huge motivator for a journalist or other media person covering an issue. You know, sticking just purely with the numbers is kind of one thing. And sometimes that's super important, oftentimes is super important. But when they can, they want to bring in real people and how real people are affected. And so thinking along those lines as well can be another thing that can help.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:16:40] What do you think about op-ed pieces? Scientists and researchers writing op ed pieces never saw it before, but now I see it actually quite a bit. What's your take on that?
Dayna Kerecman Myers [00:16:49] I think it can be interesting to see a commentary that goes along with a study. It's a place where you can see additional insights if there's some big thing that might need to change as a result, or mapping out what should happen next, what helps place it in context. I think it can be a good thing. I think we just have to be really careful to make sure that we're clear. So engage and we separate things. We try to label them commentary and it is hard to separate those sometimes when they're in scientific journals or if it's a letter, that kind of thing. As long as it's clearly labeled, it's good to have scientists getting involved in communicating these ideas to the public more and more of their direct voice.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:17:36] We had some issues recently with kind of evaluating COVID vaccines and that this kind of over focusing on antibody responses and not the cellular immune responses is kind of missing the whole boat, saying how we can't even prevent the infection now at all, basically. And it's just keeping people out of the hospital with these vaccines. And I don't know where that really goes. Is that kind of an op ed type piece that you guys would consider or have you done anything on that?
Brian Simpson [00:18:06] I mean, I would I would say absolutely. I think that that's a great example of how scientists can have a larger impact, that they can shift public attitudes, perceptions, policymakers and what they're doing. You know, whenever I hear, hey, we're missing the boat on this issue, that definitely captures my attention. I think in the past it was scientists were much more reluctant to kind of weigh in on these issues and usually would, you know, kind of work among their peers and sometimes, you know, reaching out to policymakers to, you know, to share ideas and things like that. And certainly with COVID and probably before COVID as well, scientists have done a much better job of reaching out, reaching the public and using their knowledge, but also their powers of persuasion to to make a point and to shift the public discussion and shift, you know, what's happening in terms of policy and federal support, local support was all evidence based, you know, having the scientists weigh in directly. There's a huge, huge advantage to that.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:19:08] When somebody sends in a piece to you like that, is it kind of a yes or no thing? Or do you actually say you you like the topic, but, you know, it's like way too wonky or something. Do you actually give them some advice or do you just say, go get some training in how to write an op-ed?
Brian Simpson [00:19:24] Oftentimes, we we absolutely will work with our readers who are now writing for us with scientists who want to get the word out. And we try to find what would work best for an idea. So just this last week, we got an email from a researcher who brought out a new study and wanted to, you know, get some attention to it. And so it looked very promising. And so we said, oh, you know, hey, we can do a couple of things here. You know, you could write a commentary on this because there's a clear call to action, like something needs to change. So that's kind of one thing that we're always looking for in a commentary or a straight up kind of summary that we normally do in our newsletter, or those don't sound interesting. You know, we also proposed that we could do like kind of a mini Q&A that would discover like, you know, why is this important and what needs to change because of it. So we try to tailor the the response and the use the publication to what would work best. We think so. Absolutely. You know, we'd love to hear hear from people and hear ideas.
Dayna Kerecman Myers [00:20:19] Another thing that people don't do often, they'll send us the commentary idea if it's in the news or they just finished their study. But I would love to hear from more people who follow up than a year later and say, this is what happened. It might not be something that's going to make headlines or get picked up by the media, but just that ongoing conversation. Did anything change after your study suggested these additional research areas or did students see that and then take on those topics? So that's another idea to have more more follow up and more ongoing conversations. I also just wanted to say that there are practical tips to if a scientist or a researcher or anybody, someone working for an NGO, they want to send an idea. It's always nice to reach out to us just with a brief idea first, because we often get a thousand word or more commentaries that are very dense and not really in the right tone for for what we do. And they have to be edited to get it to fit a much shorter space. So it's always better to reach out first and talk it through before you just send the finished piece.
Brian Simpson [00:21:30] We also have many publications, commentary, guidelines that explain what we're looking for, the format, you know, what works best, what doesn't work. I think when you're a scientist and you're reaching out to any publication to know kind of what they're looking for, get there guidelines in advance is always, always a great idea.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:21:49] Can you share some examples of actually what not to do? I mean, there must be some things that just automatically get rejected. Any little tips there?
Dayna Kerecman Myers [00:21:57] The biggest one is just not being promotional, not promoting your organization or your school. We're more interested in seeing what is the issue, how does this affect other people, what's meaningful and what are the takeaways than just trumpeting the accomplishments of the organization or school. A very small thing that's specific to us. We want to share a diverse group of voices in, we have a Global Health Voices Tweets section, and some people they're experts in the global health field that are just so good at this. And so they often will take someone else's retweet and then pull out a really interesting detail from the study. And it's really hard not to share that tweet, but we want it to be from the original person who wrote the study or did the story. We want to do more of that. We try to have that diversity of voices, but we also want the tweet to be visually interesting. So a lot of people will just tweet a study that has just text and then it doesn't make the cut because it just doesn't help the visual side of the newsletter at all. So the ideal tweet is from the person who either wrote the article or did the study from their account, and they pulled out something about it that really grabbed them. Some reason why it really stood out to them. And there's a photo of the article. So that's just like a very technical thing for us that that's the best way to get a tweet shared.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:23:23] Research results, as you both have alluded to, and I know quite well, often times are a little dense. It can be difficult to promote, to get this to into the public outside of your just your niche group of people that know exactly what you're talking about and no one else really understands what you're saying, depending on the topic, what recommendations can you give to sort of package the message so that it can actually have an impact in the media?
Brian Simpson [00:23:50] Yeah, that's that's always a huge challenge. And I think first you have to be kind of realistic about the message. And as we all know how iterative science is and it builds on very small advances and you have to kind of keep that in mind and be realistic in terms of like, you know, what will an editor and a writer, a reporter respond to? There's a few things you can do with that. And we talked about, you know, the power of story in people who are affected by an issue. One of the key things I think is, is, are you breaking new ground? Is this a different kind of breakthrough? Is this something that people will be curious about and want to know more about? Will it be surprising to them? Possibly too, another thing to think about is do you have your own personal story? Like, why are you researching this particular issue? What have you seen? Can you bring that into the mix? Do you have a body of work that is going to change the science that's hitting in a new direction? Is there controversy there? Are you battling kind of established dogma? So you want to give people more than just the data bits, but to give them more of a compelling story as well as the data. I think that's what I would say. Dana, what do you think?
Dayna Kerecman Myers [00:24:57] I think having quotes, too, from the researchers, having something that's interesting, some hook that just makes it stand out a little bit. That's always really helpful, too. It's also helpful if you bring in this is specific to global health, but if you bring in other people that help. With the research along the way. If, instead of submitting a commentary by the lead author only who's based at a Western school, it's really nice to see when they bring in more details if there is a partner institution overseas that they worked with. That's always really nice for us to to be able to highlight to and we try to pull that information out. And honestly, if people are submitting a commentary to us, it helps to have those different voices. We want to hear from other people and we want to engage more people overseas. So doing a joint commentary, it's sometimes hard because we're English only so far at this point. But bringing in another author can help too.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:25:53] That really great advice. So I think that pretty much wraps up our discussion for today. I want to thank you both. Brian Simpson, editor in chief, Dana Kerecman Myers, managing editor of Global Health, now a highly successful newsletter that goes out every weekday and to over 58,000 readers in 170 different countries. Congratulations on the fabulous work. And I'm sure after this podcast you're going to probably pick up quite a few more readers, I think, because you're doing such a fantastic job. Thank you both so much for taking the time to talk to me today.
Dayna Kerecman Myers [00:26:27] Thank you so much, Rob.
Brian Simpson [00:26:29] Thank you so much for your time it has been a real pleasure.
Rob Murphy, MD [00:26:37] Follow us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts to hear the latest episodes and join our community that is dedicated to making a lasting, positive impact on global health.