By: Tony Case
Journalists covering this beat have plenty of stories to pursue
and get plenty of space to report on them, but are challenged
to decipher information so it makes sense to the average reader sp.
THE EXPLOSION IN health care reporting is good news for journalists who cover the topic: they certainly don’t want for stories, and they generally get plenty of space and airtime to tell them.
But never have these reporters been challenged to sort through so much data, from detailed legislation to complex scientific facts to PR-generated information, and make sense of it.
Several newspeople well-versed in health care participated in two days of discourse last month at the Society of Professional Journalists convention in Nashville, where they considered the difficulty in deciphering statistics while keeping the public informed about a field that is constantly changing.
Health care has supplanted once-trendy subjects, such as the environment, to become the hot topic for coverage.
But four years ago, before most people had heard of Bill Clinton and before the national health care debate began in earnest, the Miami Herald assigned a reporter to cover the issue of access.
Justin Gillis, the paper’s urban affairs editor, realized the news potential even then.
“[Despite] all this stuff you hear about the American medical system being the greatest in the world, we are lower, literally, than countries like Peru and Bolivia in some areas, like childhood vaccination rates. Yes, it’s great, if you’re in the system and you’re financially secure enough and smart enough to take advantage of it, but it’s not great for a whole lot of people,” he said.
“Regardless of what [legislation] passes in Washington . . . this is still the story. There are always going to be people falling through the cracks.”
Good health care stories aren’t always technical, Gillis observed. Often the best are those with a human angle.
Philadelphia Inquirer medical reporter Susan Fitzgerald called public health reporting the best beat on American newspapers because it melds issues of science and statistics with old-fashioned street reporting on real people and their circumstances.
“There probably isn’t any story you can’t convince your editor has something to do with public health reporting,” she said.
The proliferation of databases has helped health reporters research data relevant to what they see every day in the field, Fitzgerald related, and the statistics are becoming more sophisticated all the time.
Whereas a few years ago these journalists often had to rely on outdated government reports for background information, “now we can get statistics on different public health problems ? infant mortality, cancer ? and we can zoom in on specific neighborhoods.”
The Inquirer recently obtained data showing that people who live in Philadelphia’s poorest areas are more likely to die at an early age than residents of more affluent neighborhoods.
The statistics were shocking, Fitzgerald said, but they were just numbers.
So, a reporter was assigned to spend four weeks at a funeral home in north Philadelphia, one of the poorest sections of the city. In that time, she covered 13 funerals of people whose deaths resulted from a range of causes ? AIDS, SIDS, gunshot wounds, house fires ? and incorporated statistics into the stories.
Gillis said regardless of a community’s size, choice contacts are abundant ? from public health experts and social workers to representatives of women’s health centers and hospitals that specialize in care for the poor. These individuals make great sources, providing local data and explaining difficult scientific matters.
U.S. News & World Report associate editor Rita Rubin noted that newspeople are perceived to be ignorant about science, but they need not be anxious about covering the health care maze.
“I am living proof that you do not have to be a doctor to cover medicine,” said Rubin, a former reporter for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and recipient of the Harvard Journalism Fellowship for Advanced Studies in Public Health.
Rubin co-authored a study, “Under the Microscope: The Relationship Between Physicians and the News Media,” for the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville that was distributed at SPJ.
The editor hasn’t had formal science training, which she considers an asset because she asks the kind of questions the average reader might ask, enabling her to convey complicated information in lay terms.
But reporters need to be careful about assuming they know more than they do.
“I think a lot of journalists are somewhat intimidated by science and math . . . but it’s really important to acknowledge when you don’t know something when you’re writing about science and medicine,” Rubin said.
Too often, newspeople fail to admit they don’t have grasp of a subject, she observed. Some include scientists’ direct quotes in stories without really understanding what their subjects are talking about.
Many scientists Rubin interviews are surprised she has read up on the subjects they’re discussing, which she considers the most basic preparation. She believes some reporters expect interviewees to provide in-depth explanation, and all the journalist has to do is turn on a tape recorder.
“I think some researchers would like that,” she said. “I’ve talked to researchers who love to deal with inexperienced reporters because they can just totally direct the interview.”
Rubin had sound journalistic advice for health care reporters: develop an array of sources and, by all means, do your homework.
“I read a lot,” she said.
Rubin recommended as an information resource Medline, the National Library of Medicine’s on-line service, which carries more than 4,000 medical journals.
Health reporters may have little problem finding good stories and statistics, but they face an obstacle in distinguishing the news from the same old spin, Rubin contended.
“Medicine is huge business these days and everybody’s out to get as big a share of the pie as possible, and its really tough, especially if you’re just starting out covering medicine, weeding through basically just what’s really PR and what really is truly news,” she told SPJ conferees.
Rubin, who has covered medicine for 15 years, spoke of the tremendous growth of health care public relations, noting that some doctors have hired their own PR representatives.
Pharmaceutical companies often use doctors to promote their new products, but Rubin warned “just because a physician is involved . . . doesn’t necessarily mean it’s news worthy.”
In many cases, the new drugs really aren’t much different from other drugs already on the market, she said.
Karen DiBernardo, vice president in charge of health care media relations at Burson-Marsteller, said some of today’s most important health care news is filtered through PR people.
“We represent some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies doing some of the most cutting-edge research, and it’s our job to know what is and isn’t news,” she said when contacted at her New York base. “We work very hard to establish credible relationships with journalists.”
Health care PR used to be simpler, as most news outlets had one health or medical reporter, DiBernardo related. Now, a major daily is apt to have a staffer covering reform, one who concentrates on biotech, yet another assigned to research, and so on.
“Because health care reporting has evolved into so many areas, so many beats,” she said, “there’s no such thing as ‘just PR’ anymore.”
Now, a major daily is apt to have a staffer covering reform, one who concentrates on biotech, yet another assigned to research, and so on.