Media Miracles: The Separation of Conjoined Twins, and Reflections on Minimal Television News Coverage of Health from Low- and Middle-Income Countries

28 June 2011

Australian television news and current affairs remain an important source of information for domestic audiences about both health and low- and middle-income countries. In November 2009, the successful surgical separation in Australia of conjoined infant twins from Bangladesh generated large-scale domestic media interest. In the 66 months to October 2010, only 75 health-related stories about Bangladesh were broadcast on Sydney television, 70 of them (93%) about these twins. Drawing on the television database of the Australian Health News Research Collaboration, this paper presents a thematic analysis of the Australian television news and current affairs coverage of the twins and why their case attained such a profile relative to other coverage of health from this nation. In addition to the predictable newsworthiness of a rare and bizarre medical condition and the made-for-television tension inherent in the saga of their arrival, preparation and eventual lengthy operation, prominent themes centred around the story’s opportunities to praise Australian individuals, medical skill and national character. The focus in this story on identified individuals with an uncommon condition requiring tertiary medical intervention only available in a high-income nation contrasts with a lack of coverage of, or critical consideration for, the well-being of anonymous individuals or less culturally-favoured groups, more long-term and mundane health considerations or any broader social or financial context to health issues in low- and middle-income countries. Reportage of foreign health issues appears contingent on the availability of populist ‘rule of rescue’ news frames, arresting footage and dramatic narratives that resonate with audiences’ expectations of such nations. The analysis offered in this paper illuminates the potential implications of such reporting for the wider news space available to health stories from low- and middle-income countries.