Journalists weigh in on the state of health journalism
At the Association of Healthcare Journalists (AHCJ) annual meeting, participants reveal new challenges and opportunities
By David Levine Posted on 1 April 2013
Science Writer David Levine attended Health Journalism 2013, the annual conference of The Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), from March 14 to 17 in Boston. There, he talked to attendees in various roles, asking them to share their views about health-care journalism, including new trends and the effects of social media. Here is his report:
David Levine (@Dlloydlevine) is co-chairman of Science Writers in New York (SWINY) and a member the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). He served as director of media relations at the American Cancer Society and as senior director of communications at the NYC Health and Hospitals Corp. He has written for Scientific American. Good Housekeeping, BioTechniques, and Robotic Trends and was a contributing editor at Physician’s Weekly for 10 years. He has a BA and MA from The Johns Hopkins University.
When I attended the first AHCJ annual meeting in 1999, there were just 90 people there. This year's conference attracted a record 784 attendees from across the United States and eight other countries. Journalists, public information officers and students came to network and learn about the latest trends and best-practices in health-care journalism.
The conference featured workshops, panel discussions and field trips to research sites in Boston. Between those events, I talked to attendees about the state of health-care journalism.
Rita Rubin, independent health, science and parenting writer
Rita Rubin (@RitaRubin) is a health, science and parenting writer who has contributed to WebMD, NBCNews.com , POZ and others. She was at USA Today for 13 years before leaving to freelance in 2011. She won first prize in the Consumer/Feature (small) category of AHCJ’s 2012 awards. Her winning article, Healing the Hurt, reported on the impact of trauma on people with HIV.
On her first time attending the AHCJ meeting
"I had never before been part of such a large crowd of health journalists. .... I found it to be invigorating. As someone who’s relatively new to full-time freelancing, I found the pitchfest and the panels designed for independent journalists especially helpful, if not a bit discouraging. It looked like half the journalists at the meeting identified themselves as being independent. Clearly, the competition for assignments is keen, but I hope a few connections I made at the meeting will lead to more work. And the panels I attended gave me a number of story ideas worth pitching. I applaud the people who conceived of the panel topics and recruited the speakers. They were excellent.”
On scientists communicating with health journalists via Twitter
[pullquote align="right"]A number of my scientist tweeps have become dependable sources, and via Twitter, I’ve had conversations, boiled down to 140-character-long comments, with scientists around the world.[/pullquote]
“Thanks to Twitter, I felt like I already knew a number of the other journalists at the meeting, even though we’d never met face-to-face until Boston. And I appreciated the scientists who recognized the value of speaking to a crowd of health journalists. I’m not sure any of them were people I follow on Twitter, so I’ll definitely seek them out in the Twitterverse. If they recognize the value of speaking in person to scores of health journalists, I assume they’re on Twitter, where they can communicate with potentially thousands of journalists. Twitter has been a useful reporting tool. A number of my scientist tweeps have become dependable sources, and via Twitter, I’ve had conversations, boiled down to 140-character-long comments, with scientists around the world.”
On social media’s influence on journalism and the value of content
“While a useful reporting tool, social media has not made up for the decline in demand for health-care stories. Yes, new websites have helped offset closures of more traditional media, but some want to pay writers not in dollars but by links. In other words, they expect writers to provide free content in return for links to their websites or blogs. Content has been devalued. And I don't think many independent journalists are actually making a living by blogging, unless, of course, they are blogging for a news organization that pays.”
Karl Stark, health and science editor, The Philadelphia Inquirer
On how well health-care journalists are doing
[pullquote align="right"]There is great public hunger for this information, and I feel a similar passion from reporters to treat the information skeptically and fairly.[/pullquote]
“It is hard to say without good evidence. Certainly the people I work with (staff and freelance) and those I meet at AHCJ care very much about doing a great job, and I do feel things are getting better. There is great public hunger for this information, and I feel a similar passion from reporters to treat the information skeptically and fairly."
On how AHCJ has changed and the resources it offers
“We are now reaching more people and we have more ways of serving members than ever. It’s a formidable list. Our web site is ever growing: tip sheets, core curriculum (four subjects, including health reform and medical studies, and growing), the blog leading up to the conference, and data sets like the new hospital inspection reports from HHS (US Health and Human Services). There is now so much to offer online that we have to spend time reminding people what’s there — free journals, listserve of 1,400+ brains, advocacy to help reporters get information, chapter meetings, contest winners, conference presentations, stipends to get training.”
Kathleen Raven, graduate student in health and medical journalism
Kathleen Raven (@sci2mrow) contributes part-time to Reuters Health and will complete her MA degree in Health and Medical Journalism at the University of Georgia Grady College in May. She has freelanced for Scientific American .
On the perks — and ‘darker news' — of a career in health journalism
“Nearly everyone responds the same way after I've explained my chosen profession as a health writer: ‘Oh, that's a great field. Lots to cover — and what great job security!’ I have three reasons to reciprocate their enthusiasm:
- New, frontline research findings and inventions in the vast fields of human, animal and environmental health seem to happen every other day, leading to a steady stream of story ideas
- Online and offline publications seem never satiated with health coverage
- The current media landscape offers multiple paths to success.
“By this time, my non-writer acquaintance is ready to move on. That's when I feel the urge to reach out and grab onto a shirt sleeve to share this darker news:
- A demand exists to be flexible and cover various health topics, thus leaving less time to be highly specialized in one topic
- Online and offline publications seem to be paying less to freelance writers these days
- The media landscape can sometimes feel like chaos. For example: If I tweet about this story, does anyone see it?”
On the pros and cons of following researchers on Twitter
[pullquote align="right"]Twitter is a huge cocktail party. Scientists and journalists may be whispering fascinating stuff on the fringes, and it gets lost in the noise. However, social media has been incredibly helpful for raising awareness about stories and issues.[/pullquote]
“I try to follow as many researchers, scientists and physicians on Twitter, my preferred social media, as possible. Though it is difficult to find gems in that torrent of information, too. I am frustrated by the loud chatter (of course, I'm a part of it!) and try to improve my filtering systems nearly every day. Twitter is a huge cocktail party. Scientists and journalists may be whispering fascinating stuff on the fringes, and it gets lost in the noise. However, social media has been incredibly helpful for raising awareness about stories and issues.”
On the pros and cons of social media Raven said today’s editors have less influence on information gatekeeping because the "blogosphere" and "social media scene" heats up and pushes issues to the forefront of public consciousness.
“Social media makes things better by equalizing access to information and holding us all more accountable. Social media makes things worse by drowning out important topics that don't catch fire for whatever reason and by training us to have the attention span of gnat, so that we may not delve deeply enough into a topic.”
Kerri-Ann Jennings, RDN, health writer and nutrition consultant
Kerri-Ann Jennings, MS, RDN, (@KerriAnnRD) is a registered dietitian, nutrition consultant and health writer, and the former associate nutrition editor of EatingWell Magazine. She has written for the Huffington Post, Yahoo! Shine, the Food Network and Cooking Channel TV.
On filtering the thousands of articles and TV spots on nutrition for trustworthy advice
[pullquote align="right"]Today with so many people with different backgrounds writing about health, it is difficult for the average person to know who to trust.[/pullquote]
“Today with so many people with different backgrounds writing about health, it is difficult for the average person to know who to trust. I get concerned when I see stories that are based on one study or a press release hyping up the findings.
Although there are not many health reporters trained in nutrition, at least in the old model of ‘traditional journalism’ articles were fact-checked and reviewed. My best advice is to go to sites such as government sources, like the NIH or USDA, or universities or sites such as the Mayo Clinic or WebMD where health stories are reviewed by professionals.”
Catharine Wang, PhD, health sciences professor, Boston University
Catharine Wang, PhD (@CatharineWang) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, Boston University School of Public Health. She was one of the speakers on the panel “Personal genomics: What does it mean for patients?” In her witty and lively presentation, she discussed studies that show how genetics findings are misunderstood and overhyped in the media and talked about the role of the media in genomic literacy.
On how genetics research is conveyed – and misunderstood
[pullquote align="right"]Our concern centers around the decisions people might make based on a potentially erroneous understanding of the facts.[/pullquote]
“All of these papers have a common theme – i.e., that there is a problem with how genetics research is conveyed which isn’t necessarily always due to how the media frames it. Compounding the problem is the poor level of genetic/genomic literacy among those in the general public. These decisions can range from the care they seek (often deemed as ‘raiding the medical commons’) to the behaviors they engage in (or not).”
On the negative impact of social media
“For most, it’s not easy to verify the credibility of the source online. Some people are good at weeding out the junk. Others, not so good. So in the case where a research finding is sensationalized online, it’s easier than ever for that hype to spread via social networks and get into the consciousness of the public. What you won’t see as much online or elsewhere are efforts to counter the hype.”
As for my own views on health-care journalism, they certainly were improved after attending the AHCJ conference. It was great to see so many young journalists there from print, radio and TV. I was impressed by the researchers who do want to communicate with the public, which is a relatively new phenomenon.
[pullquote align="right"]I was impressed by the researchers who do want to communicate with the public, which is a relatively new phenomenon. But I am concerned that traditional health-care reporting is dying.[/pullquote]
But I am concerned that traditional health-care reporting is dying. There are fewer health-care reporters at major newspapers. And where there were reporters with specific beats (public policy, new research, the pharmaceutical industry, etc.), very few papers or magazines can afford that anymore. There is no longer a print edition of Newsweek. Their website says ‘Newsweek is all digital.’ Well, my mom is not digital. She does not read online magazines. She was a Newsweek subscriber.
And as others have noted, mainstream articles today are shorter, and it is hard to find long investigative pieces anymore. As one editor told me (off the record), “Now it is all “7 tips to lose weight” or “The best 5 ways to reduce stress.” Dr. Oz is the main source of health news these days, and he is not a journalist.
The reality is that if you are a newspaper or magazine today, you have to have an online presence. There are not enough advertisers to fund print-only editions. The outlets that get paid subscribers will survive, and readers will be offered up-to-date stories with the opportunities to read other's opinions about them and share their own.
My best advice for readers is to follow the wise words of Maggie Koerth-Baker (@maggiekb1), whom I quoted in my Elsevier Connect article on the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) conference:
With the proliferation of places to do journalism, and the ever-increasing stream of information, increasingly, you can have crappy reporting happening at a newspaper and really good reporting happening at a blog you’ve never heard of. And the only way you’re going to know whether you can trust that reporter is to Google them and see what else they’ve written.
[note color="#f1f9fc" position="center" width=800 margin=10]
The attendees were greeted by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Featured speakers included Donald M. Berwick, MD, former president and CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and former administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ; David Goldhill, president and CEO of GSN (formerly the Game Show Network) and author of Catastrophic Care: How American Health Care Killed My Father – And How We Can Fix It, and Jerome Groopman, MD, the Dina and Raphael Recanati Professor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School and chief of experimental medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Jeffrey M. Drazen, MD, Editor-in-Chief of the New England Journal of Medicine was a panelist for “What you need to know about clinical studies but were afraid to ask.”[/note]