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Public Health & the Media: Minimum Wage

May 7, 2014

When Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne announced that minimum wage would increase from $10.25 to $11, my first thought wasn’t about whether this amount is enough (it’s not- this still puts people 16% below the poverty line, according to Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan), or whether there would be job losses (likely not -see Gordon Betcherman’s article in the Globe). My first thought was how would this be discussed in the media?
 
Admittedly, this may not be the first question that pops into the mind of a budding public health professional. However, it is one that might pop into the mind of a budding public health professional who is also a journalist, such as myself.
 
In journalism school, we are taught to write balanced stories and to fact-check every detail. And while our stories may present arguments from two or more sides and be factually accurate, they do not always explore issues in as much depth as they deserve.
 
On the day of the wage increase announcement, a mere 2-3 minutes was spent on the segment on CBC’s The National. Sure enough, the story opened with a woman on minimum wage (representing the people who are impacted), showed the premier at a coffee shop making her announcement (the political side), presented a chart that compared Ontario’s minimum wage to that of other provinces (some facts), discussed the impact on small businesses (an opposing and also economic side), referred to the $14 anti-poverty campaign (the community), as well as the Worker’s Action Centre (more support for an increase).
 
Overall, there were many voices that contributed to the piece; however, by the end of the segment, I doubt that viewers were given enough information to articulate the health impacts of low income. We know that the woman on minimum wage struggles to pay her bills and access health care, but we don’t really get a sense of how all of this impacts her health.
 
Most news articles echo this. You can, however, find some good journalism on the topic. The Globe has an interactive piece on How income inequality hurts every Canadian’s chance of building a better life. It looks at some of the determinants of health, like health care, education, and recreation. Any public health professional knows that there are many more, but the mention of “socio-economic determinants” is promising and likely a source of excitement for those of us in public health.
 
The Globe also has a public health writer, André Picard, who writes in depth about income inequality in Wealth begets health: Why universal medical care only goes so far.
 
The question is: who is being reached? Those who are interested in income inequality might read Picard’s articles, but many others may just watch their local half-hour newscast. This blog post is by no means a comprehensive analysis of what’s out there in the media, but that doesn’t change the question I just posed.
 
As a budding public health professional, I am happy to see that some of the concepts we are learning are also being offered to the public. There are, of course, certain theories that may not make the news, such as the fetal origins hypothesis, which might explain offspring obesity. But should this be in the news?
 
And here is the line I don’t know where to draw: how much public health information is enough and how much is too much?
 
Further, what is the media’s responsibility? Journalists are not trained to conduct literature reviews, number one. Number two: the media world is fast-paced and, except for a few special series in the newspaper or a radio documentary that may or may not be tuned into, is meant to deliver concise information. There are story lineups, and public health isn’t always at the top of the hierarchy.
 
So is our job to get it there? Isn’t knowledge transfer essential in improving health?
 
These are just some of the questions I hope to explore in future posts.


 
About the writer
Renira Narrandes is in her first year of the Health Promotion (MPH) program at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto. Her interests include chronic disease, obesity, diabetes, and mental health, topics she also explored when completing her MSc. in occupational therapy (2011) and her MA in journalism (2008). Renira is proud to be: born in South Africa, a poet, and a former international debater. Contact her through LinkedIn or at reniranarrandes@mail.harvard.edu.
 
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