Monday, December 6, 2010

Health reporters: between accuracy and deadlines

"What's new, fresh, exciting, different, what people are going to say 'Gee, is that right'?

(Newspaper medical reporter, Leask et al., p. 4)

Being a health journalist isn't easy. There's the deadline, there's the expert who still hasn't called you back, the editor who wants a nice picture to go with the report...The authors of "Media coverage of health issues and how to work more effectively with journalists" interviewed sixteen Australian reporters, editors and producers in print, radio and TV in order to learn more about the challenges they face. They were asked about their job in general and about reporting avian/pandemic influenza in particular (the study took place between October 2006 and August 2007).

To be "newsworthy" a story has to have the right timing, at the pick of the hunt for news. Journalists are looking for sensation (the avian flu is the new Black Death!) for actual news (like a new medical development) and controversy. For TV, the story better have good visuals.

Journalists are aware of stories from other news outlets and choose which news to reports and from what angle so they'd be able to distinguish themselves from the competition. They often use local sources and aim for local audiences as ways of providing that interesting, novel angle.

Journalists' sources can be passive (PR) or active (calling experts and reading medical journals). Naturally, journalists prefer to interview people who are "accessible, independent, highly respected in their field, and preferably doctors." They want their sources to provide fast information, which can be easily digested by their audience. That is especially true for reporters without much scientific or medical background. In TV, the images often determine whether a story will be broadcast and how prominent it will be.

The authors of the paper note that "as in other studies, journalists articulated an overwhelming commitment to keeping the public informed". Journalists try to reduce sensationalism by accurate, in-depth reporting. The journalists in the study often commented that they have to be critical and objective in their reporting. That's quite a different approach from the one which was common a few decades ago, when journalists were mostly functioned as science cheerleaders (read Dorothy Nelkin's excellent book "Selling Science" for more details).

Like in the paper I blogged about in my previous post, the current paper found that "specialist health and medical reporters had much greater capacity to produce better quality health stories." These specialist reporters usually have better understanding of the technical aspects of medical issues. They also enjoy more autonomy within news organizations and rely more on their own contacts and sources than on PR. Their prestige as 'pros' allows them to advocate which stories are most 'worthy' to run.

Getting your health story in the news: a short guide for the confused scientist
  • Timing. Call the journalist in the morning, which is "peak story sourcing time". For broad distribution, try contacting the news agencies.
  • Be available. Return phone calls fast, drop other things if you have to.
  • Provide pre-prepared resources. Anything from definitions to images, and don't forget the sound-bite quotes.
  • Find a personal touch. Give the journalists an easy way to appeal to the average person.
  • Stay networked. Be in touch with medical reporters, provide them with scientific background and stories*
  • Appeal to ethical values. Find good moral reasons why the journalist needs to see (and write about) things your way.

Leask J, Hooker C, & King C (2010). Media coverage of health issues and how to work more effectively with journalists: a qualitative study. BMC public health, 10 PMID: 20822552

Nelkin, D. (1995). Selling science: How the press covers science and technology (rev. ed.). New York: Freeman.

*Feeding them might help as well.

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