Physician-reporters at the forefront? I don't think so.

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Dr. Jennifer Ashton, CBS news medical correspondent, in an interview on the Columbia j-school site, says:

“The people who are really at the forefront of medical media and medical correspondents – they are physicians.”


I couldn’t disagree more. Hundreds of non-physician journalists have toiled on this complex beat far longer, with more dedicated fulltime effort, and with a track record that in many cases surpasses that of most, if not all, physician journalists. Physician journalists often tend to bring their “member of the gang” medical mentality with them as they approach news topics. They are still more physician than journalist. Some give advice, not balanced news. Some promote the “medical model” – not a “public health model.” Some tend to talk about medicine’s terrific new toys without ever discussing costs, quality, access, disparities.

Some – not all.

I don’t want to be guilty of the same stereotyping that Ashton used in blanketing all physician journalists – but her boast that her type is in the forefront of medical journalism is not supported by fact.

Case in point:

The CBS Early Show – where her segments often appear – has been reviewed six times so far in 2009.
Of the ten criteria we apply to the review of all stories, those segments have been judged satisfactory between 10-20% of the time. On important little things like cost, evidence, scope of the potential benefits and of the potential harms. Things consumers need to know in order to evaluate claims being made about new treatments, tests, products and procedures.

Here are reviews of three of her recent segments:




Physician-reporter segments on the other networks have received similar poor grades. Give me an ink-stained wretch who applies basic healthy skepticism and journalistic fundamentals to these topics any day.

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Comments (6)

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Andrew Holtz

May 14, 2009 at 10:17 am

Ashton makes a persuasive point in response to the question about the value of having an MD in her type of reporting work:
“It’s like knowing a foreign language and then going to that country, it puts you one step ahead of the game.”
The catch is that she’s read her map wrong. Too often MD correspondents act like they are still in an exam room giving advice to an individual patient… which is an entirely different task than reporting on health, health policy, public health and sometimes medicine for a mass audience.
When Ashton is on the air, the “country” she is in is journalism, not medicine. By her own logic, she should master the language of journalism.
As I’ve said elsewhere, MDs can learn to be journalists; but hiring an MD to cover health is like hiring a general to cover foreign affairs… or an automobile engineer to cover transportation. Medical training includes almost nothing about public health, health behaviors, communications, determinants of health, health care business or all the other facets of the health beat.
The blind spots are all too evident in the reporting by docs who haven’t learned to step out of their technical niche.

Diana J. Mason, RN

May 14, 2009 at 3:07 pm

As a nurse journalist, I have to disagree. First, nurses,social workers, and pharmacists are excellent at communicating with the public and often are better able to address self-care management approaches that people want to know about. Second, the traditional journalist is educated in the basics of good reporting, ethical dimensions of journalism, and investigative techniques that health care providers entering journalism without the requisite education often lack and need to learn one way or another. CNN’s Sanjay Gupta is a classic example of a physician who doesn’t have the skills of a journalist and has botched stories that deserved better coverage. For example, read NY Times editorial writer Paul Krugman’s column on this:

Eve Harris

May 14, 2009 at 7:24 pm

Daily TV medical stories are produced by a team that includes professional journalists. It would be nice if Ashton acknowledged the help of her producers.
As the debate rages arrogant comments like Dr Ashton’s do little to build trust between camps. Messrs Holtz and Schwitzer, I’m in yours.