What I would emphasize about the state of health journalism

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Podcast, webcast, survey of Association of Health Care Journalist members and my report on the state of health journalism are all available online.

The University of Minnesota News Service videotaped the following interview with me about the higlights of the report.

Personally, the 50 hours or so of indepth interviews I conducted with health care journalists for this report was a buzz kill. I spent a lot of time with smart, dedicated, hard-working people who didn’t feel they were able to do their best work anymore. Coast to coast, all media types, all market sizes, all experience levels.

But from a public policy – public discussion perspective, this report should be the strongest of warnings to managers of news organizations and to policy makers.

• Ninety-four percent 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 more than a quarter of respondents (28%) say they personally get story ideas from public relations firms or marketing outreach somewhat or very often.

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.

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.

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. And 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 these topics in these times can least afford setbacks.

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Allan W.

March 11, 2009 at 5:44 pm

Very interesting work. I hate to say it, but your study reiterates a trend I have seen the last couple of years. Some news organizations are refusing to hear story pitches from companies who have had to pull back advertising, additionally many executives from companies who advertise are starting to expect marketing professionals to obtain additional editorial coverage. Very discerning, but that’s how the game is begin played these days.

Ill and Uninsured in Illinois

March 11, 2009 at 6:04 pm

One area of policy and quality coverage that isn’t getting enough ink is what it’s like to be a patient without health insurance. There really aren’t nearly enough investigative stories the about care you get from overburdened low-cost clinics and public hospitals — if you even can get access to one. Working journalists should be going to these facilities and telling the public about long waiting times, shortcut care and overwhelming physicians’ workloads … before they find themselves investigating personally as members of the uninsured.

Julie Arnsdorf

March 11, 2009 at 9:21 pm

Bravo. Excellent post. My beloved J-school prof would be turning over in his grave if he saw what is happening to legit news in general. I was going to J-school in the Watergate era when there was true investigative reporting. I sure hope you are right about the “light at the end of the tunnel.” I heard an interview with Ted Turner who noted that he is disappointed in the direction of CNN… fluff, fluff, fluff.


March 13, 2009 at 2:21 pm

I plan to share this with my editor, although I’m not sure it’ll help.
I would love it if you could offer any practical ideas or suggestions for how those of us in the trenches can counter the prevailing trend. What can we do? Particularly those of us at smaller papers, who often don’t have the luxury of covering health care even half time? I mean, we’ve just laid off staff and more cuts are coming our way. I’m now expected to be a photographer, online reporter and blogger as well as contributing to the daily print edition. Good stories are falling by the wayside because we don’t have the time or resources to pursue them.
My particular passions are for rural health care and for the patient experience of how health care is provided. My readers may not live in an urban area but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve good, solid health reporting on issues that are important to them. So how do I make this happen?