Top 10 public health and social justice media bites of 2017

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Every day, our team at BMSG monitors the news to see how important public health and social justice issues are being portrayed. We look at whose voices are being elevated or overlooked, note successful techniques that advocates have used to garner media attention, and consider how we can use these insights to help advocates frame conversations in ways that further their policy goals.

In a year when the media are under constant attack, that task has never felt more challenging — or more important.

Dictionary publisher Collins has named "fake news" its term of the year. This choice is unsurprising — after all, last year, the top pick of the Oxford dictionaries was "post-truth"; however, the implications are chilling. As Katie Peter wrote in the Associated Press, "When people start to distrust all news sources is when people in power are just allowed to do whatever they want." As Peters' quote suggests, we cannot have a strong democracy without a robust, free press.

One small but important way to help keep trust in our media outlets alive is to continue pitching stories, engaging with reporters and making sure our voices are heard. Despite the extra degree of difficulty in navigating today's chaotic media environment, that is exactly what advocates have been doing. On issues ranging from racial injustice to sexual assault to gun violence to climate change, advocates have been using the media strategically to challenge beliefs and actions that threaten health and to hold power to account.

Each time advocates raised their voices, we took notice. Throughout the year, we gathered memorable media bites — quotable quotes that make people reflect on or think differently about an issue — and we often return to them for inspiration. Below are 10 of our favorites, which we hope will motivate others and encourage them to speak out as well.


police officers in uniform
Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

"The best way to serve our city is to make sure we look like our city."
—NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill, discussing the need to change the city's culture of policing. Appeared Jan. 3, 2017, in The Crime Report.

Why we like it: This short, pithy media bite brings power imbalances to the fore, underscores why diverse representation matters for entire communities and speaks to the need for institutional accountability.


"Character, talent and insight are evident in individuals from all income classes. But not all individuals get an equal chance to prove their mettle." 
—Mary Coleman, senior vice president of Economic Mobility Pathway, a Boston-based nonprofit group, commenting on Census data that showed African Americans are making less than they did in 2000. Appeared Sept. 15, 2017, in the Washington Post.

Why we like it: This quote invites readers to think about what social and political factors might prevent certain groups of people in the United States from having an equal chance at opportunity. In doing so, it challenges the notion of rugged individualism, a frame that is prevalant in media coverage, and shifts the narrative toward a broader understanding of economic mobility.

aerial view of city

"Every New Yorker deserves to live in a safe neighborhood with access to jobs, health care, affordable housing, green spaces and healthy food, but you can't address one of these without addressing them all."
—New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Appeared March 13, 2017, in The Architect's Newspaper.

Why we like it: Without using jargon, this media bite highlights how multiple social determinants of health are interconnected, and it is a good example of how advocates can appeal to values — in this case, fairness — to make issues resonate with readers.




"Sexual harassment routinely feeds on income inequality. After all, it's much harder to exploit an equal."
—Alissa Quart, contributor at the Guardian and executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, talking about how sexual abusers hold financial power over their victims. Appeared Nov. 9, 2017, in the Guardian.

Why we like it: While stories about sexual assault have been a major part of news cycles in recent months, this media bite captures a truth that most coverage leaves out: Sexual harassment is inextricably linked to other social issues. It is not only a gender issue but an economic one, rooted in power disparities.


Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

"Why is the most powerful country in the world, the country which regularly produces the most Nobel laureates and is home to most of the world's leading companies, not capable of curbing its addiction to guns?"
—Michael Knigge, discussing gun violence after the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Appeared Nov. 7, 2017, in DW.

Why we like it: This powerful statement uses irony to highlight the absurdity of the argument that America is incapable of changing its relationship to guns. As Clark suggests, it's not for lack of ingenuity or can-do spirit, values that are evident in many other aspects of U.S. culture.


Reproductive justice

pro-choice demonstration

"What's a right if you can't access it?"
—Dona Wells, on the challenges abortion providers face amid increasing restrictions, such as ultrasound laws and new license requirements. Appeared Feb. 13, 2017, in WFPL.

Why we like it: In this media bite, Wells makes a distinction between rules and their implementation. As she notes, even if Roe v. Wade is not overturned, myriad restrictions at the state and local levels can put the right out of reach.


Environments and health

permafrost thawing

"There's a massive amount of carbon that's in the ground, that's built up slowly over thousands and thousands of years. It's been in a freezer, and that freezer is now turning into a refrigerator."
—Max Holmes, senior scientist and deputy director of the Woods Hole Research Center, explaining Alaska's thawing permafrost. Appeared Aug. 23, 2017, in The New York Times.

Why we like it: The more complex an issue is, the easier it is for people to disengage. But this scientist found an effective way to communicate a complex idea (how melting permafrost contributes to global warming) using a familiar metaphor. Additionally, the quote adds a sense of urgency to climate change, which remains an underreported issue, often lost amid other high-profile news and political controversies.


Food and beverage

spoon of sugar

"We're losing more people to the sweets than to the streets."
—Delman Coates, pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Maryland. Appeared July 13, 2017, in the Washington Post.

Why we like it: This memorable media bite frames sugar as a health threat and provides a great example of how some of the most powerful media bites are the shortest and punchiest. Rather than coming from an expert voice, as is the case with many news sources, this quote comes from a faith leader and community representative who is taking action against Big Soda.



"We don't take away people's insulin or their asthma inhalers. Why should we take away their methadone?"
—Dr. Kathleen Maurer, director of health services for Connecticut's corrections department. Appeared Aug. 4, 2017 in The New York Times.

Why we like it: This concise media bite frames opioid addiction as a health issue, not a criminal one. By juxtaposing methadone, a drug used to minimize withdrawal symptoms among those addicted to narcotics, with treatments for diabetes and asthma, Dr. Maurer illustrates that jails and prisons should treat opioid addiction like other medical conditions.



binary data

"The same technologies that are used to track us online to sell stuff, aren't just selling stuff: They're criminalizing, and in some cases killing, people."
—Will Meyer. Appeared Feb. 3, 2017 in The Baffler.

Why we like it: The media often frame data collection as a privacy issue, but this media bite shows that much more is at stake. The way data are collected and used — or misused — is a social justice issue, one that has historically been used to perpetuate oppression.

Daphne Marvel contributed to this blog.

What were your favorite public health- and social justice-related media bites from 2017? Let us know at, @BMSG or on Facebook.

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