Health journalism competing with Britney?

Posted By


Some of the very disparate views about how health news should be covered in the daily news media were on display recently at a debate, sponsored by the Guardian newspaper, held during a Lancet conference in London. BMJ associate editor Rebecca Coombes wrote about it in last week’s journal. Excerpts:

The event exposed the gulf between detail obsessed academics and time poor, space hungry, national newspaper journalists. As doctor, research fellow, and Guardian columnist, Ben Goldacre bemoaned the Daily Mail for its insistence on “dividing all the inanimate objects in the world into those which can cause or cure cancer,” the professional journalists became exasperated with him for seeing the media as a monolithic organisation.

But journalists could not be straitjacketed into writing like academic researchers (said one journalist who) referred to a “prescriptive and irritating” code of conduct issued by the Royal Society a few years ago, which gave journalists a checklist to use before filing any story. It asked questions such as, is your story scaremongering? If reporting on a clinical study, make sure all conflicts of interests are identified, that independent sources were used, and so on. “All this in a 200 word story, give me a break”. There was, he said, a breed of “academics who want journalists to act as a transmission belt for their ideas.”

“Scientists expect us to include every counter story, every caveat, but you don’t have that luxury [as a journalist]. And your stories are competing with every other field of human knowledge. The person I have in mind when I write a story is the man or woman on the tube holding on to the bar, or the person online who is only two clicks away from a story about the latest antics of Britney Spears.”

I wish I could have been there.

The “prescriptive and irritating code of conduct” and the “checklist” sounds very much like our approach – although I would never refer to it as a code of conduct. But, yes, some US journalists might call it prescriptive and irritating.

Most that we’ve heard from don’t, though.

We actually have two surveys out in the field right now:

1. Of all members of the Association of Health Care Journalists;
2. Of all journalists whose work we’ve ever reviewed on

The response rate has been abysmal. I know that health journalists feel they have been surveyed to death. Nonetheless, here are some responses:

• I love it. There’s so much awful health reporting out there in very respected publications. It is important to train reporters and to make the public aware of what to look for in stories. Keep up the great work.
• Wish we’d known about it sooner.
• You’re doing good work and maybe I just need to be reminded more to use it.
• The web site is helpful in forcing me to improve the quality of my work.

And then this:

You live in a bubble. Newspapers are imploding, we are struggling to deal with virtually no resources and increased demand for content and you offer no insight into how to produce quality stories under the circumstances. In a perfect world, we would all gladly embrace your guidelines, but it’s far from a perfect world and you’re obviously not acknowledging that.

This is why we need a conversation. Our ten criteria are our attempt to give insight into how to produce quality stories under the current circumstances. And I don’t live in a bubble. Next month the Kaiser Family Foundation will release a report I wrote based, in part, on interviews with about 50 health journalists.

Our ten criteria are not an academic exercise. They are not an attempt to turn news into a medical journal. They are key questions we think any consumer should ask about any claim made by anyone about new health care treatments, tests, products or procedures.

I always ask journalists: if not our criteria, what criteria do you employ in choosing health news stories and in deciding how to write about them?

That tends to be a very short discussion, because there usually isn’t a comeback.

Because too often health news is treated as if it is only two clicks away from Britney Spears news in the paper. And maybe readers don’t want that. And maybe that’s why you’re losing them.

You might also like


Please note, comments are no longer published through this website. All previously made comments are still archived and available for viewing through select posts.

Quinn Eastman

February 16, 2009 at 4:50 pm

As a university-employed science writer, my job is to spot potential stories about biomedical research at my university. I have some control over what gets picked and how it is framed.
As much as I would like journalists to read the original journal articles on which my press releases are based, some don’t (or can’t). In addition, some publications and Web sites run university press releases as is.
To reduce the “garbage in, garbage out” tendency, it would be useful to have a set of guidelines similar to’s when writing press releases.

The Publisher

February 16, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Thanks for your note.
We think our current 10 criteria work for news releases as well. What we ask reporters to do in their stories is what we ask news-release-writers to do in their releases as well.
I would love to see an academic health center actually post our ten criteria at the end of a news release, reminding reporters to address these 10 points in their stories.
Maybe you and your institution can be pioneers in such an effort! I’d certainly write about if you did this.


February 27, 2009 at 2:43 pm

OK, not like beeing there but not too bad either – 1 hour 19 minutes audio from the converence.
(I found this while googeling for the full text version of the BMJ Article. Which I wanted to quote in my theses paper for which I (I admit it) SURVEJED health journalists…)