Health Writer's Handbook

By Swanson, Douglas J. | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Health Writer's Handbook


Swanson, Douglas J., Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


* Gastel, Barbara (1998). Health Writer's Handbook. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press. 226 pp. Paperback, $29.95.

Taped to the wall in our university's student newspaper office is a cartoon titled "How Reporters Start Their Day At Work." The drawing portrays reporters throwing darts at a board on which there's a series of signs: "Today I am an expert in ... politics... economy ... oil ... health care ... computers ... plumbing... " and so forth.

Such is the challenge facing journalists today, particularly those in smaller market media operations. They're expected to have general knowledge about lots of things and specific knowledge about the particular subject they happen to be working on at the moment, whether it be the inner workings of city government, auto repair, or the difference between abstract and impressionist art.

The challenge is especially daunting when the journalist is faced with explaining subject areas which are laden with the linguistic trappings of today's world - statistics, electronic jargon, medical terms, and the like.

For that reason, many journalists-and many educators who train journalists will likely enjoy Barbara Gastel's Health Writer's Handbook. The book is a concise, practical guide to writing intelligent and effective copy when dealing with stories involving health care. It would also be a good investment for anyone writing stories about the "hard" sciences or social sciences in general.

One of the strongest selling points of the book is that it doesn't assume the reader is a "trained journalist" and knows where to begin gathering story information. Health Writer's Handbook devotes its first three chapters to news story basics, available research, and institutional sources.

It then gives interviewing tips and discusses the pros and cons of interviewing different types of people in the health care environment. Only then does the text move into key areas of piece preparation, genres, writing style, and ethical concerns.

The book will be of benefit to educators because texts with specific research, reporting, and writing guidelines for journalism and public relations students who are interested in medical and science issues are hard to find. …

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