Magazine article Editor & Publisher

An Atmosphere of Mistrust

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

An Atmosphere of Mistrust

Article excerpt

Study cites high level of misunderstanding, cynicism and skepticism in relationships between reporters and doctors

AT A TIME when news about health care has become a priority, a new study has found an atmosphere of mutual mistrust between reporters and doctors that exceeds all other beats.

"Mistrust and misunderstanding infect many members of the medical profession when their practice leads them into contact with members of the news media," the study found.

In addition, the report discovered, "Cynicism and skepticism afflict many members of the press when, in the course of their work, they encounter doctors and other health care professionals."

The study, "Under the Microscope: The Relationship Between Physicians and the News Media," was co-authored by former American Medical Association president Harrison Rogers Jr. and Rita Rubin, an associate editor at U.S. News & World Report magazine.

Release by the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the survey polled physicians, members of the AMA House of Delegates, medical reporters and members of the Associated Press Managing Editors association.

While Rogers and Rubin found that both journalists and medical professionals agreed that they "share responsibility for not misleading the public," that is about where consensus ends.

For example, while more than two-thirds of the doctors surveyed believe that news coverage is slanted against the medical profession, not surprisingly, the journalists surveyed strongly disagreed.

They also disagreed about whether reporting enhances the status of medicine; whether journalists portray a positive view of doctors; whether journalists get the details of medical reporting correct; whether coverage is too sensational; whether journalists' education is sufficient to prepare them to cover medical issues; and whether journalists can be objective.

The two groups disagreed to a lesser extent in such areas as whether reporting concentrates too much on doctors; whether doctors frequently in the news are publicity-seekers; whether the media's emphasis on medical reporting is excessive; and whether the low pay offered medical writers tends to attract the best and brightest.

"Physicians, especially those active in organized medicine, believe that reporters are biased against the medical profession and that they tend to sensationalize health care stories," according to the report.

"Medical reporters," it continued, "depend too much on press releases and not enough on their own instincts, curiosity and digging . . . [and] reporters often botch the technical details of medical stories because they fail to do their homework."

The study also found, "Editors of the leading medical journals wield great influence in determining which research is covered by the general press," although television tends to avoid "covering complex medical topics because it focuses on stories that have eye-catching visuals and can be sum-med up briefly."

The doctors surveyed also indicated that the relationship between journalists and doctors has grown steadily worse during the past five years, although they believe that the quality of medical coverage has improved.

Doctors are aware that they need to be able to communicate with non-doctors, the report said, especially in light of public interest in such issues as health care feform, doctor-assisted suicide, abortion, HIV/AIDS and ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle, such as low-fat diets and exercise. …

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