Interviewed by Vanessa Hrvatin
André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at the Globe and Mail where he has worked for 30 years. Over this time, he has established himself as a leader in the field of health journalism, being named Canada’s first “public health hero” by the Canadian Public Health Association. He has won many prestigious awards, including a National Newspaper Award—Canada’s top journalism prize—for column writing. Mr. Picard has also written several non-fiction books, his most recent Matters of Life and Death: Public Health Issues in Canada set to hit bookstores in April.
When I spoke to Mr. Picard, he was in Quebec City covering the recent mosque attack. I managed to catch him at a quiet moment where he filled me on his long-standing career as a health reporter.
Was being a journalist always what you wanted to do?
No, not at all. I actually studied accounting. I only got involved in my student newspaper because I’m a big music fan, so I ended up being a record reviewer—that’s how my stellar career began. But the funny thing is because I was a business student I sort of got drawn further and further into the paper because student newspapers always have money problems. So I got drawn in in an odd fashion and never became an accountant.
When did you know that you wanted to focus on public health journalism?
Again, I just kind of stumbled into that. When I first got hired as a summer student at the Globe in the mid-80’s I reported on a bunch of stuff. At the time AIDS was just starting to enter the mainstream press as a big story and I reported a lot on that. The Globe’s medical reporter at the time was actually not interested in covering it because there were a lot of protests and obnoxious people and such. So because I was the lowest person on the totem pole I did all of these shit jobs like cover protests. I just started writing about AIDS and it became a bigger and bigger story. I still write a lot about AIDS and it’s 30 years later.
At this point in your career, how do you come up with your story ideas?
In health care there’s no shortage of stories; I have 20 things a day I could write about. I tend to write columns so I look for important public policy issues. There’s a lot of wonkish stuff that interests me but I know it doesn’t matter to the public, so I try and find that combination of public interest and my personal interests.
What does your writing process look like? From the time you’ve decided on a story to the time that it’s actually published, what is it like?
I am a big reader so I like to have a lot of stuff to chew on. I’ll paste everything I’ve come across on a topic into a file and at some point I think maybe I’ll cover this topic. Then I’ll read it to decide whether it’s worth doing or not. In today’s paper for example I have a column on the return of medical user fees and I’ve probably been collecting stuff for —well literally years—but in the last couple of weeks I started collecting it all into a file. Then depending on what the issue is I’ll probably do an interview or two. I don’t tend to quote people in my column so I just interview people for background to see if the stuff I am reading about is correct or to get them elaborate on it. Then I reread all of my notes and I make a one-page cheat sheet with the top points that I don’t want to forget. Then I write 750 words fairly quickly and I file it.
Is there a part of the process that you particularly hate?
I guess I tend to hate when I am ambivalent on a topic. As a columnist you need to have a point of view. So there might be an issue that seems interesting and then once I read about it I don’t really know what I think about it. In that case, I tend to drop it and do something else instead.
What do you think is one of the most important public health topics that you’ve reported on? I know you’ve done a lot so this might be a hard question, but is there one in particular that sticks out?
I think AIDS is probably the most important health issue of our time. In the last century I don’t think anything comes close to its political, social, and health impacts. Even journalism-wise, I don’t think anything has had as big of an impact as AIDS, so I think that’s probably the biggie. But you know, I wouldn’t say it’s the most important story because it doesn’t directly effect most people in the world. I don’t want to be trite and say everything’s important, but what I really try and do is get my fingers in a lot of pies to hopefully get people interested in various topics. I don’t pretend to write a definitive piece on anything.
What do you think are some of the most important public health policies that Canada has to adapt to or work towards in the future?
Maybe I sound like an accountant when I say this, but I have written many times over the years that the most powerful drug we have is money. We can influence people’s health if we are a more equitable and fair society and that attests to how you distribute money.
I know you’ve also written a few books as well. What inspired you to step away from journalism and go toward book writing for awhile?
The first book I wrote—The Gift of Death: Confronting Canada’s Tainted Blood Tragedy —was a continuation of my reporting. I covered the tainted blood scandal for many years and then at some point I started to get approached by publishers. At first I was like, “Nah, I’ve been writing about this for years I’m not sure I want to write about it even more.” But when you have a collection of stories in the paper they just come and go from one day to the next and I felt like somebody had to write the definitive story on this. It was worthwhile—not financially worthwhile—but worthwhile nevertheless to have that under my belt. I think it’s an important historical document if nothing else.
What kinds of challenges are there with book writing that are different from journalism writing?
Daily journalism is good for people with a short attention span. You start something in the morning, you write 750 words, and then you go home for supper. A book takes much more time, but the upside is you can go into more detail. When you write daily stories 99% of your research never gets published. So with the story of tainted blood donors I knew all this stuff because I had been writing about it for years, but so much of that information never made it into the paper. I always describe daily journalism as snap shots of something and a book as more like a little motion picture or a documentary.
What’s your latest book about?
The book I just finished is a collection of columns. It actually ended up being much more work than I thought because when something is 15 years old you have to go back and do a lot of re-research and rewriting to update numbers and things like that.
I know you sometimes make bold statements with your stories and I am just wondering if you ever get any backlash from any of your stories?
Oh yeah. It comes with the territory. I have thick skin. Occasionally you get positive feedback too, so that’s nice.
You’re very active on Twitter and I know you’ve been writing for the Globe for over 30 years, so when you first started Twitter wasn’t around. Was it hard to adjust to the Twitter world and how has tweeting affected your journalism?
Well things change and I think journalists are fairly open minded to new things. The Globe offered social media training when things like Facebook and Twitter came along, so I went and learned how to make a Facebook page which seems funny now, but at the time it was something fairly new. I went into Twitter with the bias that a lot of people have of not wanting to read people tweeting about what they had for breakfast. But someone at the training explained to me that he used it as his newsfeed which I thought was really interesting. So I signed up and for awhile I was just a lurker. Now essentially it’s my newsfeed—that’s how I read news is through Twitter. I think I’ve learned that social media’s not good or bad it’s how you use it that’s good or bad. So I think I use it fairly judiciously, although obsessively.
You’ve won so many big awards like the National Newspaper award. What award meant the most to you?
The one we got last year from the victims of thalidomide for our coverage of that issue was really special. To me something like that was really touching because it was so heartfelt. It’s not a National Newspaper Award, it’s not a Pulitzer prize or anything, but it’s from a bunch of people who your story has really changed their lives. It’s not the trophy that matters, it’s the sentiment behind it.
I think if you stick around long enough people will give you awards so I try to keep them in perspective. If you start hanging all your awards on the wall and staring at them in the morning, I think it’s pretty well time to retire. I keep mine in a box.
A lot of people are questioning the future of journalism. I am in journalism school right now and people keep telling us it’s a dying industry, and I am wondering if you would agree?
I was just quoting the great American philosopher Yogi Berra the other day when somebody was asking me about my views on something. He said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” When I got a job at the Globe, nobody had been hired there for 2 years. I think every era has its crises and we adjust. What’s going on today seems much worse, but I believe things go in pendulums and I hope we are at the low point and things will pick up. Some of the best journalism I’ve ever seen is happening right now so that’s really up-lifting. Some of the worst journalism ever is also happening right now so that’s a bit depressing, but hopefully we will be able to hang onto the good and get rid of some of the bad. History tells us that people always want information. We are just going to have to figure out a way to convince people to pay for it like the way they pay for coffee—I think that’s the convincing we need to do.
What would your advice be to a journalist who is trying to break into the industry today?
I always worry that I am going to sound trite, but I just say the same thing people said to me: If you like writing, write, and it will work out. I hope that’s true for people. It’s what I say to my kids, I say find something you like and do it. I wouldn’t obsess with having a job or a career, just obsess about following your passion and finding your niche. In journalism now it’s much easier to have a real specialization. I tag along to groups like the Association of Health Care Journalists and there are a lot of young people who have this hyper specialty now, like they only write about antibiotic resistance, and they make a good living because they are known for having this specialty.
I think careers are different now. The notion of someone like me working at the same place for 30 years isn’t going to happen anymore—that’s for dinosaurs like me. But there’s going to be new ways of having careers where in 30 years people are going to go, “Wow, she had 42 top level positions!” and that will be a new type of longevity.
Vanessa Hrvatin is a science journalist currently pursing her Master of Journalism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Her work has been published in Canadian Geographic, the Globe and Mail, and the Sarnia Journal. In her spare time, she likes to read, play tennis, and practice photography.