A Chasm of Distrust in Medical Reporting: A Doctor Who Was a Medical Journalist Tries to Understand Why Journalists Don't Trust Their Sources and Sources Don't Trust Reporters. (Medical Reporting)

By Schraeder, Terry L. | Nieman Reports, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

A Chasm of Distrust in Medical Reporting: A Doctor Who Was a Medical Journalist Tries to Understand Why Journalists Don't Trust Their Sources and Sources Don't Trust Reporters. (Medical Reporting)


Schraeder, Terry L., Nieman Reports


After working as a medical journalist for 10 years, I entered medical school and then a residency in internal medicine. To my surprise, I emerged to find a new world of medical journalism. I am encouraged by some aspects of this world but disillusioned by others. It is true that medical journalism, more than ever before, has become an important source of public health education and information. But it is also true that there are problems in the relationship between medical journalists and physicians, including their understanding of each other's professions.

The chasm between medical journalists and physicians appears mostly to be one of ignorance rather than conflicting interests or malice. But across this divide exist miscommunication, misunderstanding and the potential for misguided messages to the public. Rose-colored glasses may have altered my memory, but I do not recall the caustic attitudes of journalists toward doctors or the skeptical tenor of doctors toward journalists when I was a full-time journalist a decade ago. I remember more professional respect, objective analysis, and collaboration. Perhaps, during the embryonic years of mainstream medical journalism, the parties were more polite, if not forgiving and patient of each other.

The Chasm Widens

The worsening rift first struck me after I finished my medical internship. Working as a freelance journalist, I thought I would be welcomed back into the fold of the fourth estate. Instead, I felt like an outsider. Negative comments about the medical profession seemed commonplace. Likewise, I heard physicians speak of members of the press as if they were not to be trusted.

I listened to routine condemnation of medicine and journalism often framed with incomplete or inaccurate data. Instead of talking about story ideas and interesting science and medicine, journalists railed and postured as if they were protecting the public from a menace. It was as if in covering medicine, they were covering the enemy. Physicians dismissed medical journalists as being too uneducated to understand medicine or too busy to report on it accurately. They worried about the limitations of journalists and the motives of their editors while pointing to manipulation by outside interests. News reports were considered "abbreviated" at best and "sensational" at worst. Doctors accused the media of confusing their patients.

For me, the dispute came into focus at the Mayo Clinic's Medicine and Media Conference in 2002. One reporter charged that if journalists had not reported on the limitations of arthroscopic surgery that doctors would not have changed their practice of performing arthroscopy for osteoarthritis of the knee.

The journalist in me wanted to say, "Yes, mainstream medical journalists covered that research and informed the public." But the doctor in me wanted to say, "Doctors designed and conducted that research and a medical journal (The New England Journal of Medicine, July 11, 2002) published the study showing that arthroscopic surgery has no benefit over placebo for the treatment of certain types of osteoarthritis of the knee." A change in practice came about because of a collaborative effort instituted by doctors and conveyed to the lay public by journalists.

I began to wonder whether journalists and doctors are oblivious to the importance of their collaboration. And I worried that the negative attitudes they had about one another could threaten similar effective working relationships of the future. Had medicine become the enemy, as some medical journalists thought? Are most medical journalists unable to inform and educate the public accurately on important health matters, as some physicians believed?

In trying to answer these questions, I thought of numerous examples of outstanding work from both fields. In my journey of medical reporting and medical training, I've witnessed countless instances of commitment, intelligence and courage from physicians and medical journalists, all working under profound professional stresses. …

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