Jennifer Yang, global health journalist

This globetrotting reporter tracks down stories about human health and infectious disease even as newspapers get squeezed. Interview by Nicholas St. Fleur

March 28, 2014


Global health reporter Jennifer Yang of the Toronto Star reports a story from Chile. Credit: Alex Fuentes Catrin

Courtesy of Jennifer Yang

Global health coverage has receded from the media landscape as news outlets have slashed costs and writers. But at the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, those stories are thriving. Reporter Jennifer Yang took up the paper’s new global health beat in 2012 and has since reported on everything from mental health in Bhutan to emerging zoonotic diseases such as the H7N9 influenza virus and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS.

On one occasion she interviewed a woman who lost her mother during the 2003 outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). The mother contracted the illness after being in the hospital. The disease then spread to her daughter and severely crippled her, forcing her into an early retirement. Yang learned from the interview that the woman knew almost nothing about SARS—including that the disease ruining her life probably came from bats.

The experience was eye-opening for Yang, who grew determined to inform the public about the world’s diseases. She hopes her work will inspire other news organizations to fill the void for global health stories. Before taking to her new beat, Yang, 30, was a general assignment reporter with the Star. She won the National Newspaper Award, the Canadian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, for her coverage of the 2010 Chilean Mining disaster.

Yang shared her journeys in global health through her talk at the February 2014 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. Afterward, SciCom’s Nicholas St. Fleur sat down with her and, through a vicarious international trip, leaned how she covers infectious diseases.

How can global health beats flourish as newspapers decline?

It’s tough. We all know media outlets are shrinking travel budgets, closing foreign bureaus and pivoting towards local news—this all spells trouble for global health coverage. But like everything else in the newspaper industry, the beat has to adapt; we can't get on a plane for every story, but there are other ways to tell the story. Skype is our friend and almost everyone has a cellphone now, even in the poorest corners of the globe. And it's more important than ever to cultivate sources in the field, so they can be your eyes and ears on the ground for story ideas and emerging issues.

How can newspapers looking to implement a global health beat do so?

By just doing it. My newspaper launched its first-ever global health beat in the middle of the toughest financial chapter in its history. But you do need a persuasive advocate inside the newsroom at the management level; in the Star's case, it was the foreign editor, Lynn McAuley, who recognized the importance of covering issues like global health and pushed for the paper to create this beat.

SARS played a big role in your reporting. What is the Toronto connection to SARS?

SARS raced across some 30 countries and infected roughly 8,000 people around the world. One of the cities where it really took hold in North America was Toronto. I was just an undergrad when SARS hit Toronto. It was a traumatic experience for Torontonians. The economy took a major hit. You saw the fear just by taking the subway 

What was that fear like?

I’m Chinese, and SARS was associated with China. I remember an experience on the subway with a woman who was wearing a face mask. I sat next to her, and she shot me a dirty look and shrunk away from me and moved seats. That really impacted me; she clearly was terrified of me. It was a real wakeup call for many Torontonians.

"Journalism is about telling good stories. The global health universe is chock-full of them."

Was SARS one of your first topics when you moved to the global health beat?

SARS was long gone by the time I became a global health reporter in October 2012. But the first story I did write was about MERS. It was identified in Jordan, but when it broke out in April 2012 no one knew what it was. Then a Saudi Arabian man died in June 2012, and that virus was later identified as a new coronavirus that looked and seemed a lot like SARS. I was naturally interested, my editors were naturally interested, and our readers were naturally interested. It coincided with the 10-year anniversary of SARS, which was in 2013.

Many of the same [researchers] who began looking into MERS also had looked into the SARS outbreak. One woman in the U.K. spoke about how the “SARS club” that formed around the outbreak of SARS was coming back together again to identify yet another new coronavirus. It was very full circle.

Which of your reporting trips has been most impactful for you?

Absolutely the Bhutan story. I had read a very brief interview piece with a psychiatrist and it mentioned that he was the first and only psychiatrist in Bhutan.

Bhutan’s international reputation is for being one of the happiest countries in the world. The Bhutanese are Buddhists; they’re very spiritual and connected with nature. The Buddhist philosophy is aligned with this happiness priority that they set for themselves as a country. It’s pushing a gross natural happiness system. They take pride in the fact that they have a very happy population.

Meanwhile, we have this one lonely psychiatrist, Dr. Chencho Dorji, who’s battling with growing rates of depression and other mental disorders. That already makes for a compelling story, but it turns out that he’s personally impacted by mental health because his brother is schizophrenic.

How did that affect him?

His brother used to be a very respected monk. But then he had a mental breakdown and his first schizophrenic episode. The psychiatrist told me that his brother became violent when people tried to help him. They thought he had become possessed by spirits and deities. All the family could do was lock him up for ten or so years.

Chencho wanted to help his brother, but he had no means to do so. He then became a doctor and started medicating his brother, who improved dramatically. That’s what inspired him to become a psychiatrist.

In a country proclaimed as one of the happiest in the world, what is the nature of this psychiatrist's work?

He’s been very tireless in bringing global health awareness to his family and his people, but he can’t do it alone. He can’t treat every Bhutanese person, especially if they live four hours away in their remote village. So he has installed a system in which health workers are trained in recognizing mental health problems and referring mental health cases. If you train this army of people who can act as your eyes and ears in the field, they can foster mental health that way. It’s working pretty well.

You also wrote an interesting story about bats and human infections. What led to that?

Well you can’t help but notice that with SARS, MERS, Ebola and Nepavirus, epidemiologists believe these things originally came from bats. There’s a lot of work and energy and resources poured into studying the bat, since it’s increasingly being recognized as very important to human health.

Did you feel like this was a detective story?

Yes, every infectious disease story is a bit of a mystery or a detective story. If you had to encapsulate my bat story in one sentence, it would be: "What’s up with the bat, and why is it involved in all of these viruses?"

Another of your impactful stories delved into Malawian sexual initiation, where young women have sex with much older men as some sort of sexual ritual. How did you first hear about that story, and how did you approach reporting it?

I was only able to report this story because of a United Nations Foundation Press fellowship. I had no idea, like you, that this was an issue or a practice. When I went to Malawi, we were talking about malnutrition and global health and child marriage. One of the UNICEF employees mentioned that part of the reason these girls are getting pregnant is because of this sexual initiation they have to do.

That was an off-the cuff remark, but she said it was pervasive and she started to explain it. It was shocking. It’s very counterintuitive. In many cultures it’s taboo for young girls to have sex before marriage, but in this culture young girls are encouraged to practice sex at a young age so that they will be prepared for marriage and to please their husbands.

When you’re put into a new country like this, how do you find a story?

When we traveled around with the U.N. Foundation, the sexual initiation story wasn’t on the agenda. It was something that just came about. They weren’t at first going to introduce us to a girl who had undergone sexual initiation, but we requested it. You've just got to keep your eyes open. There’s going to be a story. 

Why do you think the global health beat is important to journalism?

Journalists have a responsibility to report on matters of public interest, hold governments accountable, and provide context for what’s happening in the world. I think these mandates are all met when we cover global health issues. Global health is increasingly being recognized as a social justice issue; why do most Canadians live into their 80s when Zimbabweans have a life expectancy of 54? Global health spending has reached unprecedented levels; where is all of this money going and who is benefiting? Never before has the health of populations—both human and animal—been so interconnected; how did a bat virus from China travel to Canada in 2003 and kill 44 people? These are all questions that journalists have a role in answering.

And last but not least, journalism is about telling good stories. The global health universe is chock-full of them.


© 2014 Nicholas St. Fleur

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