My Report on the State of Health Journalism

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For much of the past year, I’ve been working with Kaiser Family Foundation support on a report on the state of health journalism in this country.  It was not the intent of the report to do an assessment of the quality of the work as we do here daily on  Rather, it was an attempt to capture a snapshot of how changes in the media industry were affecting the development and distribution of health news.

The report, results of a survey of members of the Association of Health Care Journalists, and a podcast and webcast of a Washington, DC briefing at which the report was released are all available online.

The University of Minnesota also videotaped the following interview with me about highlights of the report.

The survey and the journalist interviews I conducted carry a powerful message about the threat to the flow of meaningful health news to the American public.   Here are some of the data that trouble me:

• 94% of survey respondents say the bottom line pressure in media organizations is seriously hurting the quality of news coverage of health care issues;

• 88% of survey respondents think health care coverage leans too much toward short “quick hit” stories, and two-thirds (64%) say the trend toward shorter stories has gotten worse in the past few years.

• A majority of respondents (52%) say there is too much coverage of consumer or lifestyle health, and too little of health policy (70%), health care quality (70%), and health disparities (69%).

• Just under half (44%) of staff journalists participating in the survey say that their organization sometimes (33%) or frequently (10%) bases stories on news releases without substantial additional reporting.

• About one in 10 staff journalists in the survey (11%) say his or her own organization sometimes or frequently allows advertisers, sales staff or sponsors to influence story selection or content and another 21% say this occurs rarely.

I am not at all comforted by this and do not see this as “only” 11%.  In discussing serious ethical breaches, even “rare” events are important.  So I read it as 32% of respondents acknowledging that their news organizations sometimes allow advertisers or sponsors to influence health care news.

That is an amazing admission and perhaps the most troubling finding in the entire survey.

So on the eve of what may be the most important health policy discussion in this country in 15 years, we’re covering these topics less frequently.

Instead, our news organizations often cover cutesy, soft, fluffy, news you can use features.

Or our news organizations often make it seem like every medical journal, every scientific meeting is like Christmas Day with terrific new toys under the tree that have no side effects and no price tag.

The “more is not always better, newer is not always better, screening tests don’t always make sense” evidence-based wisdom of so many of our veteran health care journalists is either not appreciated or it’s being lost to cutbacks, buyouts, layoffs.

Several top health journalists have left their newspaper jobs to work for foundation-supported health journalism jobs, such as the new Kaiser Health News service.  Many will be watching what comes from such efforts.

The improvement in health journalism – in pockets across the country – has been one of the major advances in all of journalism in the past decade. But now it could be one of journalism’s greatest losses.

So while we know that the cutbacks hitting the health beat affect ALL of journalism, the argument could be made that coverage of these topics in these times can least afford setbacks.

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