Just for journalists: Tips and case studies for writing about health care

writing about health careWriting about health care is complex and nuanced. On this page for journalists, we offer 1) primers for writing about complex medical topics, 2) advice for common pitfalls healthcare journalists face, and 3) in-depth case studies on how we cracked open several important medical stories in recent years.

Another page–tips for analyzing studies & health care claims–also has primers to help journalists and the general public learn how to scrutinize what they hear or read about health care interventions.

Also: “Covering Medical Research: A Guide for Reporting on Studies,” written by HealthNewsReview.org publisher Gary Schwitzer and published by the Association of Health Care Journalists, aims to help journalists analyze and write about health and medical research studies. The guide is available to AHCJ members for free online. Non-members may purchase a print copy by contacting AHCJ – info@healthjournalism.org.


1. Primers for writing about health care and complex medical topics


IV drip hanging on a pole in hospitalCANCER IMMUNOTHERAPY DRUGS:
6 tips for writing accurately about cancer immunotherapy drugs


How to report accurately about the harms, side effects and risks of immunotherapy


stem cell Writing about healthcare

9 tips to combat stem cell hype in your stories




Brain injury and concussions
Communicating effectively about concussion research: 6 tips for writers



Custom prescription drugs being created in pharmacy compounding
Tips for evaluating claims about genetics and biotech and our biohype bibliography



How to write about addiction: Four tips to avoid promoting stigma and bias



‘Brain dead’ can’t be ‘kept alive on life support:’ This and other important things to know about brain death 


Journalists need to prune the overgrowth in the jungle of supplement news



2. Advice on common pitfalls healthcare journalists face

5 tips for writing better health news headlines

CBS proclaims ‘cancer breakthrough’ & why that gets FDA’s ‘breakthrough’ designation wrong
7 words and more you shouldn’t use in medical news

Resources for reporting on costs of medical interventions

Our full toolkit of tips for understanding studies
How much significance should health news give to statistically nonsignificant results?

-What a University of Houston news release failed to mention
New York Times‘s blog post on transcendental meditation plagued with problems

How a reporter’s story got in the way of critical analysis in the Washington Post
Journalists reporting on themselves in health care stories: is this narcissism?
First person health care stories not always narcissism – and can be a public service

The patient as PR tool: Why readers should be wary of single-anecdote news stories

Recently: Doctors as journalists walk a fine line ethically. Did Fox News’ Dr. Manny Martinez cross it?
Also see: Our in-depth coverage of TV news doctors

Media case study: PR news release vs. news stories on mammography screenings for older women

How to uncover commercialism


3. Case studies: How we did it

Where’s the data?

concussion in footballExposing bad university/industry science: In early 2016, we reviewed a news release from the University of Maryland that touted the results of a study showing that a brand of chocolate milk helped football players with concussions. But the release had no link to the study–so we persisted and ask the university for the study via direct contact, and a blog post. They stonewalled, so we wrote about that, too. We soon learned the university was launching an internal inquiry, but then more silence followed, so we explained how this tactic wasn’t good PR. Pursuing a different tack, we asked the school district involved with the study if students gave consent for the mysterious study, and got murky answers. Not long after, the university released its internal review findings, validating many of the concerns that we voiced in our review of the UMD news release and blog coverage about this study. This led to major changes to the university’s research agreements with private entities, and, proudly, the university’s internal investigators credited journalists with spotting that something was amiss.

blood pressure checkExposing hype in news releases: In 2015, the National Institutes of Health issued a news release with a big announcement about  “landmark” results for what’s known as the SPRINT (Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial) study. But as we pointed out in our review: The release contained nary a single statistic from the study or a number related to what the researchers found. We also did a deeper analysis of why this missing data is so important. When the study findings were finally publishable and reviewable by doctors and journalists, we sought to find out: Did the published SPRINT study results live up to premature NIH news release hype? And as the news media covered the findings, we looked at those headlines, too, and what was lacking. Nearly a year later, we followed up with the news that key details about the study were still dribbling out that impact how cardiologists view the findings–and exemplify why we all need to slow down when reporting on exciting but hardly verified study findings.



Grappling with a medical topic or writing pitfall you’d like us to tackle? Contact us.