Friday, March 20, 2009

Healthcare Journalism Needs a Recovery Plan

There’s More Evidence That the Profession is Suffering
I’ve spoken out before (Give Me an S, Give Me a C, Give Me an…, Personalized Promise, Heading in the Wrong Direction, NEJM Makes It Official) on the need for increased health and science literacy. This is crucial if we are to promote evidence-based decision making, increase productivity, enhance economic competitiveness and ensure the continuation of the democratic process. The Obama administration is sending the right signals but a survey of health care journalists conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Association of Health Care Journalists shows that the state of health and science media, like the economy, may not have turned the corner quite yet.

In response to the question of “what do you think is the biggest opportunity in the field of health care journalism?” the number one response was the “ability to educate and empower consumers.” Great. But overall they expressed concern about “staff cutbacks, less time for reporting, fewer resources for training, and more pressure to produce short, quick hit stories.” Almost all (94%) said bottom line pressure hurts the quality of health news. Sixty-five percent judged the quality of health coverage as fair or poor, and only one percent said it was excellent.

Even so, respondents had “a cautiously optimistic view of the direction in which health journalism is headed.” While 24% said journalism in general was heading in the right direction, the number jumped to 52% when asked specifically about health journalism. This didn’t give me much comfort, though. That still left 48% who thought health journalism was heading in the wrong direction.

It’s been noted that as the amount of health and science information has grown, the amount of time and space devoted to them has shrunk. This has created opportunities for non-journalists to jump in but I, for one, don’t want to see this gap filled by consumer-generated content alone.

As for the type and placement of health and science stories, the trend of focusing on political or business angles will continue. And with the politicization of healthcare – be it Medicare, Medicaid, FDA, stem cells or pharmaceuticals – it was not surprising that the business/economics of health care, health care quality and performance, and health policy were all ranked higher than medical research and science as areas where more training was needed.

Healthcare journalists are hungry for ongoing opportunities to elevate their knowledge and skills yet 43% said training opportunities have declined. Twenty percent said opportunities increased. In a report to the Kaiser Family Foundation written by Gary Schwitzer of the University of Minnesota, a radio reporter said, “My biggest challenge is having enough background and training to cover health care. This is an incredibly complex and challenging beat. People are pitching stories left and right and if you don’t have a way to analyze their claims, you could be doing your listeners a big disservice.” To be sure, the proliferation of junk science continues to give me great concern.

This less than rosy picture comes to us despite the availability of some terrific training programs, workshops and “boot camps” underwritten by various foundations, government agencies and companies. I hope that even more can be done, and find ways to help journalists get the time and resources to attend. Indeed, 69% of the respondents reported that opportunities for travel declined in the past few years.

Maybe this will all turn around with time. I’m going to hope that we’ll see demand for health and science reporting increase as we continue to shake off some of the anti-intellectualism that has bogged us down. I’ll hope that we’ll see more public and private investment in training and continuing education. And I’ll hope that we’ll see some newsrooms staffing up as the economy recovers.

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