Health Journalism in an Infodemic with André Picard

PodcastJuly 12th, 2021

“We have to teach skepticism. There’s nothing that serves us better in life than being skeptical without being cynical.” – André Picard

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Intro

André Picard, renowned Canadian health journalist, converses with Brooke about the value of clear public health communication and the importance of teasing out truthful information from the tangle of misinformation. Picard discusses the responsibilities of stakeholders in curbing the COVID infodemic, from publishers and writers to readers.

Several thought-provoking ideas explored in this podcast:

  • The COVID infodemic
  • The influence of public health communication strategies
  • How to prepare students for the next infodemic
  • The necessity of skepticism without cynicism
  • The value of service journalism and the trouble with media polarization

Key Quotes

On mobilizing behavioural change

You’re not going to change someone’s mind by threatening them with jail. If they are addicted to a drug they’re going to do whatever they can to get it. What’s going to make a difference, that keeps people from dying, is ensuring that the drugs they do get are safer. A lot of these behavioral things make people uncomfortable because they’re counterintuitive. We don’t explain enough that, ‘This may seem weird to you, but it works. And here’s why.’” – André Picard

On communication in public health

[Communication is] really the, I won’t say the only tool, but it’s certainly by far the number one tool of public health – just talking to people and telling them how to protect themselves.” – André Picard

On modern public health communication

Public health people don’t like to be questioned, even less so than politicians. There’s not a history there of transparency and innovation. It’s a lot of preachiness. That has come back and bitten them in the behind in the social media age.” – André Picard

On media literacy

Whether it’s primary school, or whether it’s medical school, postgraduate studies, we have to stop just trying to fill people’s heads with stuff, and we have to teach them how to learn. That’s what the future of education is: perpetual learning and how to do it, what sources to trust, et cetera. It’s way more important to know how to understand information than it is to understand geometry, for example.” – André Picard

On polarization and education

I always caution people, we’re not in the business of education, we’re in the business of information. And those can be very different things. But we do think we have to embrace some of that education component. We also have to get away from our traditional, “there are two sides to a story,” business. Why are we surprised that politics is polarized, and that the public is polarized about vaccines? We promote polarization. We have to get away from that and write more skeptically.” – André Picard

On anti-trust in the infodemic

We need a variety of voices and platforms, and whenever you have just one dominant company in a sector, it just lends itself to abuse. Facebook is Big Brother. If I type something into my Google search, within seconds I have an ad. It’s creepy. Kids still read 1984, the Orwell book, but they’re living it. And I don’t think people recognize just how insidious this is. It’s unhealthy. It can be abused. That’s not democracy. We have to have measures in place to ensure that there isn’t abuse.” – André Picard

Transcript

Brooke Struck: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, research director at TDL, and I’ll be your host for the discussion. My guest today is André Picard, health columnist at the Globe and Mail, who was recently recognized by the Canadian Journalism Federation for his exceptional contributions to public discussions of COVID-19. In today’s episode, we will be talking about health, journalism, and decision making in the public square. André, thanks for joining us.

André Picard: Hi.

Brooke: Before we get started, please tell us a little bit about your journalistic career and especially what drew you to public health stories.

André: Well, I guess I have a really boring CV. I left journalism school about 35 years ago, and two days later started as a summer student at the Globe and Mail and I’ve been there since. So I just got hired as a summer student to general assignment reporter, but it was the time of AIDS, this was the mid-80s. I started covering AIDS, and that’s been the arc of my career. That is probably the biggest pandemic in history. I’ve been covering that for years, and that just led me in different directions, and most of them related to public health and public policy. A lot of journalists cover medicine, but I’ve never really covered medicine. I cover the politics of health and the policy aspects, which a lot of people think are a lot more boring, but I think are probably ultimately much more important than the medicine.

Brooke: Certainly, in the last 15 months or so we’ve seen just how important those more policy-oriented and politically oriented questions are when it comes to health. So in your coverage of public health, you’ve talked a lot about behavioral insights, and the behavioral and cognitive dimensions of health and health decision making. In your coverage of public health, how have you seen the use or non-use of behavioral insights?

André: I don’t really use that terminology, but when I think about it in those terms, almost everything is about behavior. From the individual meeting with a physician, most of the time they’re trying to change your behavior, to get you to stop smoking, et cetera, right up to a very global approach. The use of condoms, for example, for AIDS, things like that have changed dramatically. Harm reduction measures. When I think of it in those terms, there are all kinds of behavioral science that goes on, but we don’t think of it in those terms. We think of it as communication, we think of it as changing people’s minds, et cetera.

When I think about a lot of what goes on, some of it good, some of it bad, I think AIDS has led the way on this. Especially early in the pandemic, where there was essentially no treatment, there’s still no vaccine 40 years later. So it’s been all about controlling people’s behaviors to get them to act differently, and it has been dramatically successful. The rates of HIV transmission have gone down 60, 70, 80%, over time. And that’s all about people changing how they live, and how they behave.

Brooke: Perhaps sticking with the context of AIDS here for a moment, is there a specific intervention or a small number of interventions that you’ve seen that really stand out as having performed well in getting people to adjust their behaviors?

André: The important part is that there’s never one thing. We like to look for magic bullets in society, but it’s usually an accumulation of a whole bunch of things. One that stands out as particularly successful is the testing of pregnant women. So we’ve essentially almost eliminated the infection of children being born with HIV, because we know that we can give a simple cocktail of drugs even right before the birth happens and prevent that transmission. So that’s just one example. If you’re looking for a large-scale intervention, it’s our attitudes about condoms. 40 years ago, when I started covering this, my bosses were squeamish, “We don’t talk about that stuff.” Now, I do work for a fairly conservative paper, but that was more reflective of society. We didn’t talk about that in polite company, and now there’s no hesitation whatsoever.

Brooke: And that reminds me of a story that I heard long ago, potentially apocryphal, that a bunch of public health workers arrived in some village and we’re trying to convince the local population about the importance of condoms, and teach them how to use them, and these kinds of things. But they themselves were too squeamish to effectively demonstrate the use of the implement. And so, what they ended up doing is putting the condoms onto a whole bunch of broomsticks to illustrate how to use them. And when they came back months later, they found that all the broomsticks had condoms on them.

André: Clear messaging is probably the most important part of messaging.

Brooke: Maybe that’s something to explore next. What are some examples where you’ve seen that things have really been bungled, that people really haven’t had their eye on what behaviors need to be changed, or how it is to effectively change behavior, and we’ve just been pouring energy and effort into something that’s not moving?

André: There’s all kinds of things where we just don’t do enough these days. I think a lot about drug use, because of the opioids, the overdose pandemic. That’s an area where we just haven’t explained to the public clearly enough. This whole law and order mentality that we have, it’s all well and good to think like that, but it’s totally ineffective. You’re not going to change someone’s mind by threatening them with jail. If they are addicted to a drug they’re going to do whatever they can to get it.

André: So we can have all the police in the world, and it’s not going to make a difference. What’s going to make a difference, that keeps people from dying, is ensuring that the drugs they do get are safer. A lot of these behavioral things make people uncomfortable because they’re counterintuitive. “Oh, why would we give out drugs for free? Aren’t my kids going to become heroin addicts?” No, they have no interest in that. And a very small percentage of people do have interest in that, and they are going to do it regardless. So it actually benefits society more largely: there’s less spread of illness, there’s going to be fewer break ins, people stealing to get money for drugs. We don’t do enough explaining to people that, “This may seem weird to you, but it works. And here’s why.”

Brooke: It seems like from time to time we’re conflicted between our values of how it is that we feel we ought to behave, and our values of what kinds of outcomes we want to see. And drugs are a perfect example of that. The evidence seems to be pretty strongly in the camp that more policing is not going to make the problem substantially better. But on the other side, on the moral side of the equation, we also don’t want to be seen to be endorsing drug behavior. We have a moral qualm about embarking on the thing that is actually most likely to work, and sometimes in unintuitive ways. Sticking with the idea of drugs there, what are your thoughts on the grand experiments in Portugal about completely changing their approach to managing drug use?

André: I’ve been a big fan of harm reduction measures. Portugal has done some good stuff. It gets exaggerated how good it is. Their approach has some problems. You have to go through a lot of hoops to be eligible, to get your free drugs, et cetera. They do have very, very punitive measures at certain points in the process. It’s not ideal. But the philosophy is one that’s a good one, that you’re not going to jail your way out of these problems. A lot of jurisdictions could do better. Canada, to be fair, is not bad. On the global scheme of things we have pretty good harm reduction measures, but we tend to have them in very small, limited pockets, when we get so desperate that we actually do the sensible thing.

Brooke: One of the things that stood out to me about Portugal, and this relates back to the idea you were talking about of putting in the effort, is that when they made the conscious decision to switch to a harm reduction strategy, one of the very clear corollaries that went along with that is that the money that’s been spent, and the resources that have been spent on policing can’t just evaporate. Those need to be channeled into the harm reduction strategies. We’re not giving up on the problem, we’re not stopping to care about the problem, we’re not just giving all this moral licensing to engage in behavior that a lot of people find unacceptable. We’re just approaching the problem in a really different way.

André: You mentioned money. Money comes in to blur a lot of these issues. Of course, police are going to defend their turf, they want more police. That makes sense. It’s logical like every profession. So when you start saying, “Well, we’re going to take that money and spend it differently,” that’s going to put some noses out of joint. And it’s easier for police to make emotional arguments – “fewer police, we’re all going to be in danger,” et cetera, even though the evidence doesn’t back that up. So these issues do get blurred by self-interest.

Brooke: How have public attitudes and expectations regarding public health changed over the last decades in all the time that you’ve been covering this?

André: Public health is interesting. The paradox of public health is always when it’s working best, it’s invisible. So it has this perpetual political problem. And we’ve seen that, we saw really a burst of interest in public health during SARS 15, 16 years ago now. Lots of investment, and then it petered out to the point where just before COVID came along, there were huge cuts in public health. They’ve been doing nothing for a decade, we don’t need them. Huge cuts, and then along comes COVID, and now they’re struggling with half teams trying to deal with the biggest pandemic in history. That’s the fundamental problem with public health. People have to be willing to spend on something that’s invisible.

André: And again, it’s a hard sell in the political environment where it’s a two-year political cycle. Who wants to spend money on something that doesn’t seem to be giving you immediate returns? It’s a hard one. But on the public attitude side, most people, especially during COVID, have come to appreciate the importance of it, of having public health, of having spokespeople who deliver clear information. And they’ve come to understand the importance of communication. That’s really the, I won’t say the only tool, but it’s certainly by far the number one tool of public health – talking to people and telling them how to protect themselves.

Brooke: The other tool of course, is compulsion. We’ve seen that with stay at home orders and people getting ticketed, although these things have been quite rare. Do you think that there’s been a shift in the public’s attitude towards what they see as the proper place for being told what to do, and being compelled to do something by their government, by public health, et cetera?

André: We’re getting smarter and more sophisticated about this. People are realizing that the compulsion, that the threats don’t work that well. That essentially carrots work much better than sticks. And again, a lot of this is driven by what’s happening with drugs and overdoses. People are just realizing that’s not working. And this is the same with COVID. There’s always going to be a certain percentage of people who won’t get vaccinated, or won’t wear their masks. And you can’t have a cop at every door, unless you’re China. China got this pandemic under control literally by, in some cases, nailing people into their homes. You can’t get away with that in a democracy. That discussion is getting more sophisticated.

Brooke: You’ve noted the way that public health is responding to these changes and people’s expectations, especially around carrots and sticks. What about communications? What has public health done to continue to modernize its approach to communications over the last few decades?

André: I don’t think it’s done near enough. The fundamental problem we have with public health is they still operate like it’s the 1950s. There’s this religious overtone to the way public health communicates. Like, “We’re going to tell you how to be good people, and you better do it.” It’s almost like the priest from the pulpit. Public health people don’t like to be questioned, even less so than politicians. There’s not a history there of transparency and of innovation. It’s a lot of preachiness. That has come back and bitten them in the behind in the social media age. They really haven’t kept up with the world of TikTok, and WhatsApp, et cetera. Public health is desperately behind, and that has driven a lot of our problems during COVID in Canada.

Brooke: Do you think that they’re still clinging on to the old deficit model? The idea that if people aren’t behaving properly, it’s because they don’t understand the problem?

André: I think that’s a lot of it. And just this notion that, “well, if they didn’t understand the first five times, we’re going to tell them the same thing five more times.” Rather than, “hey, maybe we should be talking about this differently because people have different views, or because other groups like anti-vaccination groups are way more effective in their messaging because they use anecdote and emotion.” Public health is really leery to use the stuff that works, they’re very cautious.

Brooke: It’s interesting when I think back about the discussions about vaccinations throughout the course of COVID-19, it feels like public health was very keen to get information about how the vaccine developments were progressing, and the early data that was coming in about their safety and their effectiveness. But they weren’t really mounting any campaign to keep the public up to date with how those things were going. It’s not like people who were anti-vaxxers, or even vaccine-hesitant were waiting for the white hanky to drop to start their messaging campaigns. They were well out ahead by the time the public health got around to thinking that now is the time we should start talking to the public. The idea that seemed to be underlying that is, “once the government has decided that they’re safe, we’re just going to tell people that it’s safe, and they’ll believe us.”

André: And they seem to be shocked when things like blood clots come up. They’re like, “Why is the media talking about this? They should only say nice things.” There is this, maybe it’s not a naivety, but just an old fashioned way of thinking that we should just tell people what’s good for them, and that’s that. They don’t need too much information. And I don’t think that’s true. We’re having that debate now about lotteries, vaccine lotteries, for example. I’m a fan of them, because I think you have to pull out all the stops. These sober appeals to civic duty can only take us so far, especially in this modern world, where there’s a lot of doubt about institutions, et cetera. You can’t just say, “Everybody should do the right thing, and if they don’t tsk tsk.” That doesn’t cut it anymore.

Brooke: You mentioned the media, and we’ve been focusing a lot on public health up until now. But of course, public health is only one piece of what is an increasingly busy and micro-targeted information landscape. Can you tell us a bit about this so called infodemic?

André: The infodemic being the spread of a lot of false messaging, things that are untrue, partially untrue, et cetera. It’s a huge challenge with the modern internet world. I started my career before we had the internet. The good old days, some people call them, but they weren’t that great. We’re in the infancy of understanding how to react to this. There’s a lot of challenges out there that I just don’t know what the solution is. Younger people like you are going to have to figure them out. But public health certainly, and government certainly have to do a better job of acknowledging that there are these forces at work, talking about people, and why they exist. Why are there anti-vaccine groups?

André: I think they’re actually still a very tiny minority. They’ve always been there. But they’ve got this megaphone now to make them look bigger. We in the media often confound hesitancy and being opposed to vaccination. Hesitancy is a good thing. People should ask a lot of questions and question everything they put in their body, whether it’s a vaccine or can of Coca Cola. We should be teaching people to be more questioning, but that doesn’t mean that you embrace something ridiculous in return. It’s tough to navigate the modern world. I do think that younger people do a much better job of it than us older people. We know, without question, that the worst people perpetuating falsehoods are the 50 plus group on Facebook talking to their friends, that just swallow nonsense of Klein and Sinker. We got to work on the folks who were there before the internet age who just don’t understand how to navigate this.

Brooke: It sounds you’re advocating something like a more critical embrace, a higher level of comfort with ambiguity with the fact that there might not be a clear line between the right answer and the wrong answer. But you still need to hedge your bets, and choose the worst of all evils.

André: Right. Ambiguity is important. I also think that education is really the key here. We can’t teach people everything. Knowledge is changing perpetually, but we can teach them how to understand information, where it comes from, what are the vested interests. That’s the thing we don’t talk about with the small, loud anti-vaccine movement. They’re always out there denouncing big pharma making profits. And that movement is all about money. It’s about selling something else. It’s total nonsense, but it’s very, very profitable. And we have to talk about it in those terms. I don’t care if you hate big pharma, that’s fine. But you should hate anti-vaxxers just as much because they actually make way more money, and they have way fewer rules. And let’s talk about it in those terms, if you want to talk about it.

Brooke: Let’s dig in a little bit around education. So media literacy is something that has entered the public lexicon much more since I finished school a decade plus ago. And certainly, when I was a younger person in school, coming up through school, that just wasn’t on the radar at all. Is this something that’s finding its way into education curriculum?

André: It’s getting in there slowly, but surely. I hear some positive news. But it really has to be a priority. Whether it’s primary school, or whether it’s medical school, postgraduate studies, we have to stop just trying to fill people’s heads with stuff, and we have to teach them how to learn. That’s what I think the future of education is: perpetual learning and how to do it, what sources to trust, et cetera. And we’re starting to do that, but we really have to pick it up. It’s way more important to know how to understand information than it is to understand geometry, for example.

Brooke: Being someone who lives in the media scape, what would you say are the most essential skills from an education perspective that you’d want to see people coming out with as the basic toolkit of citizenship, if you will?

André: We have to teach skepticism. There’s nothing that serves us better in life than being skeptical without being cynical. We have to find that fine balance of skepticism. We have to teach people to understand “the why.” Why are people saying this? If something is too good to be true, it’s too good to be true. There’s some really basic rules that have existed for time immemorial. Caveman knew that if something was too good to be true, it was probably too good to be true. There’s probably something bad lurking around the corner if there’s a pile of food there. That really, really basic stuff is important.

Brooke: Moving now to journalists and publishers, what actions can they take to help to tame the infodemic?

André: We can do a few things. One of the most interesting things about the pandemic has been the real appetite for what we call service journalism. So not breaking news, “he said, she said,” but just like, “Where do I get my vaccine? Why is it different to get Moderna after Pfizer? Is that bad?” We’ve been bombarded by real practical questions from people. I think we have to do a lot more of that. The media, I always caution people, we’re not in the business of education, we’re in the business of information. And those can be very different things. But we have to embrace some of that education component. And people want it, so that’s important. We also have to get away from our traditional, “there are two sides to a story,” business. Everything in the media is about conflict, essentially, whether we’re writing about sports, or politics, et cetera.

André: If that’s the basis of everything you do, then why are we surprised that politics is polarized, and that the public is polarized about vaccines? We promote polarization. We have to get away from that and again, write more skeptically. The most important thing is context. What the media does the worst of all, is that we don’t contextualize things. We have our screaming headlines, but we don’t give the context of why we’re talking about this, or why it’s been talked about for 40 years. And we have to spend a little more effort on that.

Brooke: It’s interesting that you bring up the way that politics is covered and this idea that balanced journalism requires setting up the two sides to the story. So much of the behavioral discussion of that is that, for instance, if there’s strong consensus on one side of the story that often gets lost. And so, you end up suggesting that there’s a false equivalence between these two sides. I hadn’t thought of it before in the context of polarization, the fair and balanced approach that always sets up the, “well, these are the two sides,” will very, very likely to lead to those two sides being caricatured in very confrontational and antithetical ways.

Brooke: And that’s something that for a brief and shining moment, early in the pandemic we seemed to get away from.I was amazed and impressed to see the quality of dialogue in the federal parliament in Canada, really, really elevated early on in the crisis. And all of a sudden parliamentarians really were all rowing in the same direction. Not towards anybody’s partisan end, but actually just putting the partisanship aside, and putting the common good ahead of everything else. What was your perspective, or your take on that at the time?

André: Exactly like you, I thought that was an amazing time of cooperation, not only between the federal parties, but between the provinces and the federal government. We saw this unprecedented cooperation, and the public loved it. There was no time in the pandemic when the communication was better than then, back in March, when not everybody was saying the same thing, but they were saying it in the same way, in a calm, logical way. There wasn’t this petty partisanship about, “He’s only saying this because he’s liberal,” et cetera. I don’t understand why there isn’t more of that in politics. Well, I do understand, because we don’t reward it. You don’t get rewarded if you cooperate with the government. A lot of why have we returned to the partisanship because government’s popularity soared, and the oppositions got forgotten. So there’s some reason that this happens, but it was a refreshing moment that we don’t see too often in politics.

Brooke: What is it that we can do, other than triggering a perpetual global crisis to get more of that?

André: As voters we have to reward that. If a government has a policy, and it’s actually a good policy there’s nothing wrong with the opposition, saying, “Yeah. We would have done that if we were in power too.” I think the public likes that. And then you say, “But we also would have this.” We need more of that, “Good on you, but now let’s get on to something else, now that we agree to this,” instead of these petty distinctions that make no difference.

Brooke: Let’s talk about social media. When you first started your career, that was just not even in anyone’s wildest dreams. If the internet wasn’t around and common currency yet, certainly social media was just a pipe dream. But now, the world has changed a lot. Social media platforms, again, lean in structurally to this division. We were talking earlier about critical perspectives and skepticism. And that’s absolutely antithetical to the way that social media platforms are set up. They are all about segmenting people, and getting them to sit cleanly within their little segmented boxes. What role do you think social media has in driving the infodemic? Where do you see the opportunities for them to start to roll that back?

Andre: There’s no question they’re the number one driver of the infodemic, of this distrust in institutions, et cetera. This is all driven by the big platforms like Facebook. A lot of the stuff that’s on there is just appalling. I always find it odd people are always attacking, “Oh, the mainstream media is doing this.” Mainstream media has virtually no voice compared to these big platforms anymore, and they don’t get called out enough for it. Creating platforms that allow neo-Nazis to talk openly, racist and misogynist content is just overwhelming a lot of the times on social media, and we have to call them to account. There does have to be more regulation, there has to be more antitrust measures. They’ve just become too big and powerful for the good of society. There were times when we broke up media conglomerates, and that seems almost naive now in retrospect. They had still little power compared to the Facebook’s of the world. This is essential, fundamentally, to democracy, to getting some control of these platforms.

Brooke: I’d like you to explore the idea of anti-trust a little bit more. What is it that you think is so important there and will be so effective here?

André: We need a variety of voices and platforms, and whenever you have just one dominant company in a sector, it lends itself to abuse. Facebook is Big Brother. If I type something into my Google search, within seconds I have an ad. If I type in “Aruba,” within seconds, I’m going to have ads popping up about sales of flights to Aruba. It’s creepy. Kids still read 1984, the Orwell book, but they’re living it. I don’t think people recognize just how insidious this is. It’s unhealthy. It can be abused, and we can’t just trust that Mark Zuckerberg is a good chap. That’s not good enough. That’s not democracy. We have to have measures in place to ensure that there isn’t abuse. I think there is a lot of it.

Brooke: We can’t just rely on the public good being something that will necessarily fall out of exploring profit motives. That we need to more structurally embed the public good into the business models of social media, if I understand you correctly.

André: We certainly can’t count on benevolent billionaires. History tells us that that never gets us to a good place.

Brooke: In terms of social media at the individual level, and the way that we engage with these platforms, what is it that we can do on a frontlines trenches basis to just start getting at this problem?

André: At the very most basic level, think for two seconds before you retweet or share something on your social media platforms, especially offensive content, really dubious content. It comes down to the pretty basic things. We throw a lot of fuel onto fires just thoughtlessly. A lot of that individuals can do. But individual change is not going to get us that far. I think we’re being overwhelmed by bots, and organized campaigns of hatred, and of trying to change public policies that are just done by machines. When I’m on my social media platforms, I’m wondering, “What percentage of these are actual real people anymore?” And I’m not sure. I’m not sure it’s a very large number.

Brooke: We had a really interesting conversation on the podcast with David Rand recently. We were talking about this issue of how to be more critical in the way that you engage, in especially resharing, and commenting and stuff on content that’s there. One of the things that he mentioned is that if you ask people what their priorities are in the news that they’re looking for, including on social media, accuracy will often come out quite highly. But then, if you observe their behaviors, accuracy doesn’t seem to be very high on the priority list in terms of the tacit priorities that they make clear through what choices they make.

Brooke: One of the things that he’s been working on, which I found really interesting is having a little pop up that says, “How accurate do you think this information is?” It just asks you to rate it. It basically doesn’t matter what it is that that rating tells you. Just asking someone the question makes it more salient to them, and they will continue for a little while to focus more on accuracy of information and their resharing behaviors. That’s something that I think resonates with what you’re talking about here, that you need to slow down and be a little bit more critical. But also that there are structural supports that can be put in place to make it easier for you to do that. If you find yourself in a firestorm on Twitter, taking a breath and stepping back from the keyboard and assessing, “How important is this really?” is not the most intuitive thing to do.

Brooke: The intuitive thing to do is to let your blood boil just like the blood is boiling of all the other people who are participating in this, and you get swept right along with it. I appreciate your comment, that you said here’s a limit to what it is that individuals can do, not because individual actions are not important, but because the contexts that we find ourselves in are going to be really strong determinants of the kinds of actions that we can take on a consistent basis. It’s just too hard to paddle so hard upstream.

André: Absolutely. I was going to say exactly what you said. There’s a lot of value in just taking a breath. I noticed on Twitter now they have something that pops up. They say, “Do you want to read this story before you retweet it?” Now, the funny thing about that is I find the only time I get that pop up is when I’m actually retweeting one of my own stories. So I always find that ironic. But it is that kind of thing, just getting people to catch their breath. It is a good thing.

Brooke: André, thank you very much. You’ve covered a lot of points here that are worth emphasizing. We’ve been talking about the infodemic, and especially in the context of health, and really come at it from a number of angles. We talked about, in the context of journalism, the value of service journalism. It’s really come back to the fore in COVID. Also the idea that a balanced story that necessarily pits two sides as inherently against each other, needs challenging. We might need to rethink the way that stories are structured and framed because of the oppositions that it creates.

Brooke: In education as well, teaching skepticism, and not cynicism. I really appreciated that. And that, cynicism naturally brings me around to politicians. Something that politicians can do is not feed that cynicism. In terms of the more positive prescriptions that you made: not fearing to agree with people across the aisle, that we can do more “yes, and.” We don’t always need to be doing the “no, but.” In terms of social media platforms, you noted the challenges around business models, and the importance of integrating the public goods somewhere into that business model. For individuals, especially as they’re engaging with social media, taking a breath, thinking for a couple of seconds before you retweet or share. That’s really opening up the space for you to put your skepticism into play.

Brooke: Even if you have a great education, and you’ve developed these skills, if you never actually mobilize them, you won’t have gained very much. And coming back around, finally, to public health, getting away from the old-school, pulpit style communication, and starting to embrace the fact that often it’s not just a lack of information, or a lack of understanding that is driving people’s behaviors; their decision contexts are much more complex than that. You need to be engaging in two-way communication in order to understand their context well enough to be positioning yourself to communicate and structure policies effectively for those people.

André: The important thing that I forgot to mention is, people have to be willing to pay for good information too. If we want good media it has to be able to be monetized. During COVID, it was really interesting. A lot of media, especially at the outset, removed their paywalls. I work for a paper that has paywalls. And people gobbled it up, and that’s good. But that can only last so long. You have to pay the bills, you have to keep the lights on, et cetera.

André: People really have to be willing to pay for stuff that has value. Every day, I get emails from people saying, “Oh, it’s public health. It should be free.” And I’m like, “Well, it costs money.” I said, “Do you go into Starbucks and complain that there’s a coffee paywall?” Because we have to start thinking in those terms. If you value something, pay for it. And the other thing is, you really have to wonder if something is free, is it really free? And it’s not. It comes at a cost. It comes at the bombardment of Facebook ads, them prying into your life every second so they can target ads at you.

André: Why is hate speech free, and good information is not? Because people have an agenda. Nothing that’s free comes at no cost. That’s a really, really important element. I’ve been heartened by the fact that, for example, my paper has seen its subscription soar during COVID, which is good. People have this recognition that you do pay for information. But it’s not enough. Not enough people have that view.

Brooke: It’s important to remember that if you’re getting something and not paying for it, there’s probably somebody else who’s paying for it, and they’re paying for you to get it for free.

André: Or you’re paying for it in ways you don’t imagine.

Brooke: Anyway, André, thank you very much for taking some time to chat with us today. This has been a really, really enlightening conversation. And thanks again for all the great work that you’ve done at the Globe and Mail, and for Canada and beyond during COVID.

André: Okay. Thanks.

 

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About the Guest

André Picard

André Picard is a Canadian health journalist, reporting and writing for the Globe and Mail since 1987. He has received a number of awards, including the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service Journalism, the Centennial Prize of the Pan-American Health Association as the top health reporter in the Americas, and being honoured as Canada’s first “Public Health Hero” by the Canadian Public health Association. Most recently Picard was named Canada top newspaper columnist at the National Newspaper Award in 2020. He has received honorary doctorates from seven universities, and has served as the Asper Visiting Professor at the School of Journalism, Writing, and Media. Picard is also the author of six books, including the current bestseller “Neglected No More.”

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck

Brooke Struck is Research Director at The Decision Lab. He holds a doctorate in philosophy of science. His dissertation research focused on the relationship between quantitative and qualitative research methods, and the relationship between research and other social systems such as language, history and politics. Since finishing his academic work, Dr. Struck has worked in science & innovation policy, first within the Canadian federal government, and then subsequently in the private sector at Science-Metrix. In recent years, he has been researching the interface of big data analytics with organizational decision-making structures, especially in policy-making contexts.

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