Why Reporters and Editors Get Health Coverage Wrong: Health Journalists Need and Want Special Training. (Reporting on Health)
Voss, Melinda, Nieman Reports
In 1997, I left behind 26 years of reporting at The Des Moines Register to pursue a master's degree in public health. The switch proved great fun. I devoured courses in epidemiology and biostatistics, health policy and health behavior theories, research methods and program evaluation, among others. Invariably, however, in class, professors criticized--or, to my chagrin--ridiculed some ineptly done news story about health and medicine. Adding to my dismay were various studies I came across that criticized journalists for careless, unscientific, inadequate or unfair coverage of AIDS, women's health issues, chronic fatigue syndrome, health reform, and medical research.
Often, I have felt hard pressed to defend the news industry. Having been a reporter, I knew all too well how little preparation and on-the-job training journalists typically receive for covering such complex issues as fetal brain cell implants, HIV/AIDS and, as we have witnessed recently, bioterrorist threats.
I am not alone with my concerns. A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) pointed to the frequency of exaggerated reporting about preliminary medical studies. Dr. Lisa Schwartz of the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vermont reviewed a year's worth of health-related research that resulted in news coverage. Her review of 147 research presentations at five major scientific meetings in 1998 found more than one-quarter of the studies generated front-page news stories in at least one major newspaper. Yet more than one-third of those reported-on presentations either involved small numbers of human subjects or were based on animal or laboratory studies. Three years later, only half those research papers generating general news coverage were published in a leading peer-reviewed medical journal, with smaller numbers appearing in lesser journals and others going unpublished altogether.
"The current press coverage of scientific meetings may be characterized as `too much, too soon,'" Schwartz wrote. "Results are frequently presented to the public as scientifically sound evidence rather than as preliminary findings with still uncertain validity. Press coverage at this early stage may leave the public with the false impression that the data are in fact mature, the methods valid, and the findings widely accepted."
Health Journalists Need Training
How can this be? The simple answer is that many journalists who cover health and medicine have had no specialized training. In fact, a 1999 survey I did showed that nearly 83 percent of 115 Midwestern health reporters who responded said they had no training, besides on-the-job experience, that specifically helped them cover health issues. And more than two-thirds of the respondents identified four skills--understanding key health issues, putting health news in context, producing balanced stories on deadline, and interpreting statistics--as troublesome. The survey also found that the health reporters (all of whom were at daily newspapers) know they lack proficiency and want help. Only 31 percent felt "very confident" reporting health news and only 9.7 percent felt "very confident" interpreting statistics.
Though these results didn't surprise me, I find it shocking even now that the news industry pays so little attention to preparation and training for reporters and editors, particularly if they are being asked to report on complex issues involving health and medicine. Indeed, the idea of providing on-the-job training holds so little sway in the journalism industry that no one knows how much is spent on professional development. The best estimate comes from a recent study by Northwestern University's Media Management Center, which used the standard benchmark--percentage of payroll spent on training--to track spending in the newspaper industry. On average, newspapers spend seven-tenths of one percent of payroll on professional development, Northwestern's researchers found. …