The Covid-19 pandemic proved to be a boon for health news organisations around the world as readers sought out credible information about a virus they knew little about from sources that made the data easy to digest and understand.

One such news outlet was Spotlight, a donor-funded public health journalism publication that provides in-depth coverage of South Africa’s health systems, the people it affects as well as the country’s response to TB and HIV.

We spoke to Spotlight’s editor-in-chief Marcus Louw about the work the digital publication does, the impact of Covid on its readership, and the state of health journalism.

1. How did Spotlight come about?

We launched Spotlight in 2016 in response to what we consider to be a shortage of in-depth, public-interest health reporting in South Africa. Spotlight replaced a previous publication called the NSP Review – part of the change was to move from an NGO publication to an editorially independent publication that is a member of the Press Council and bound by the Press Code.

2. What is the mission of Spotlight?

At Spotlight, we aim to produce compelling, in-depth, public interest health journalism. To us, this means producing both journalism that empowers people with accurate health information and journalism that holds those in power in the health system to account. The ideal is that Spotlight’s articles should always deepen people’s understanding of health issues.

3. Who are you targeting?

At the core of Spotlight’s philosophy is the conviction that anyone can follow and understand health issues, even highly technical health issues, as long as journalists take the trouble to explain it well enough. In one sense then, we edit and produce our journalism for the general public. That said, we are also aware that many of our regular readers are people who work in healthcare, such as policymakers, researchers, healthcare workers, and activists. We find that through a focus on producing journalism that is both accessible and rigorous, we can effectively serve all these groups.

4. How has the publication been received by readers and the industry at large?

Our journalism is regularly republished by leading platforms such as News24 and Daily Maverick where it reaches a wide audience. A review that we commissioned about two years ago found mostly very positive responses to our work and the feedback we receive in person and online is overwhelmingly positive. We also recently established an Editorial Advisory Panel that has already given us some invaluable feedback on our work. We believe that a publication with a public interest mandate like ours has to go out of its way to establish such feedback loops that ensure the journalism remains relevant.

5. How would you rate the status of health journalism in this country?

We have several excellent health journalists in South Africa, but on the whole, we do not have enough health journalists and enough health desks. As a result, many important HIV and TB stories, for example, are covered only superficially or not at all.

6. TB and HIV reporting has taken a back seat in traditional media coverage over the past 2 years to Covid. Has that reflected on your side?

In the first year of the pandemic, we did a lot of Covid-19 work given the obvious public interest in it, but in 2021 we took a conscious decision to again do more HIV, TB and other health stories given the extent to which these areas were being neglected. These days we cover HIV, TB and Covid-19 roughly equally.

7. Have you benefitted from the Covid pandemic?

The Covid-19 pandemic did result in record numbers of visitors to the Spotlight website and probably helped raise Spotlight’s profile, but it also made our work harder in some ways. At times our journalists couldn’t visit facilities and do the type of on-the-ground reporting we believe in. Less in-person contact also meant fewer opportunities to meet and build trust with sources. And, of course, like everyone else, journalists and their families were/are also at risk of Covid-19 and its direct and indirect consequences.

8. How does misinformation affect the work you’re trying to do?

One of the basic functions of public interest health journalism is to empower people with accurate and trustworthy health information. We believe that by doing rigorous health journalism that sticks to established journalistic values, by being as fair and transparent as possible, and by admitting when we get it wrong, we can over time build credibility and hopefully help immunise people against misinformation.

9. How can more journalists get involved in this type of health reporting and what kind of stories are you looking for?

There is a saying that ‘good journalists read good journalism’. The same goes for health journalism. My first bit of advice for aspiring health journalists is to read widely – both health journalism and books about health issues. My second piece of advice is to take health seriously as a beat with specific requirements – both in terms of understanding how the science works and in terms of navigating the human and political side of healthcare.  If these are things you are up for, my advice would be to simply start freelancing.

10. What can readers expect from your newsletter?

As with many donor-funded publications, Spotlight aims to get the maximum reach for our journalism by giving copy away for free to media partners – in our case mainly Daily Maverick, News24, and In addition to that, we distribute our journalism through various social media channels and in electronic newsletters.

11. Is there anything else you’d like to share about Spotlight that I haven’t asked?

Spotlight is somewhat unique in that it is published by two NGOs, SECTION27 and the Treatment Action Campaign. Spotlight’s relationship to its two parent NGOs is analogous to that between other media houses and the commercial entities that own them. As in those cases, one key to Spotlight’s credibility is that it is editorially independent and that the editors jealously guard this independence. Spotlight is also a member of the Press Council and is bound by the Press Code.

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