How to write a health policy backgrounder for the media
Just in time
Journalists are often on tight deadlines and are not subject matter experts on every topic they cover – nor should we expect them to be. They often do not have time to adequately research all sides of an issue before deadline.
A backgrounder helps a journalist frame the issue and provide the key facts and context so that the journalist can do their job properly: ask informed questions of the right people in a timely manner.
Why is it newsworthy now?
Backgrounders do not provide a viewpoint or opinion but emphasize the most recent and most reliable evidence to date. They provide the history of an issue but also highlight why the issue is of importance today.
Just the facts, ma’am
A good backgrounder is 1-4 pages in length, organized by sub-headings or by frequently asked questions with a few paragraphs provided under each section.
The brief should include the history of the topic (context), a summary of current research (content), past and present controversies (conflict) and any gaps in knowledge. The language should be plain, unadorned and accessible: ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’
Data is king, so this is where you provide evidence-based statistics and findings, and highlight the quality of completed research.
Accuracy and transparency is also key, so providing hyperlinks to the information cited in the brief (studies, analyses, policies, legislations, etc.) is essential so that the journalists can fact-check further and build their story directly from the pertinent evidence.
At the end of the brief there should be a section that indicates where the journalist can go to find more balanced information on the topic (such as professional societies or non-profit organizations, specialist schools and individual experts, including links to contact details).
While a story may have national appeal and implications, highlighting local angles are also useful for journalists who are increasingly pressured to write about the ‘local angle’ (province and/or city).
In a nutshell
A backgrounder should state what the issue is, what we know about it, and why we should care about it at all. It should be quick and easy to read (small subsections in paragraph form, not bullet points) but chock full of information.
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