Some health professionals and scholars have voiced frustration with the media’s inability to communicate scientifically accurate health news.
In order for public health to work effectively with the media, it is important to understand how news is sought and shaped by journalists within their organisations. The present study explores the role of specialist medical reporters in this process.
What is Health Journalism?
Health journalism is news coverage of health-related discoveries and facts for the purpose of public awareness and education. This news is typically published through a newspaper, radio, TV or website. Today’s health journalists have diverse backgrounds ranging from doctors-turned-reporters at major newspapers to those with bachelor’s degrees in journalism who work in niche publications targeting specialized audiences. Some of these publications focus on biomedical research while others are trade journals whose readership consists of medical professionals.
The growth of the Internet has also led to the proliferation of specialized health publications. These sites are often driven by advertising revenue and attract a highly targeted audience. However, they may not be as credible as traditional news outlets. As such, their content often reflects an exaggerated view of the importance of scientific advances and may mislead readers.
A recent study examining the influence of online news sites on health behaviours found that these sites often fail to provide sufficient information about costs, benefits, harms and risks. Instead, they tend to emphasize “sexy science”, “game-changing” and “cure-all” stories. Such stories can have an adverse impact on patient trust in medicine and public perceptions of risk.
Despite this, many of these sites do produce high-quality reporting and provide valuable information to their readers. For example, CBC’s Dr. Brian Goldman and CNN’s Sanjay Gupta are physicians who double as reporters. Similarly, Andre Picard of The Globe and Mail and Theresa Boyle of the Toronto Star are beat reporters who specialize in health journalism.
While there is no single definition of health journalism, it is generally understood to mean any form of news coverage that focuses on the human side of medical research and the broader implications of health policy and policy decisions. Ideally, this should involve the humanization of science and medical progress and an exploration of the incentives – financial and otherwise – that shape so much contemporary research.
A number of studies have examined the quality of health journalism, though their methodologies and findings vary. Some have focused on measuring the quality of individual articles, while others have looked at a wide range of health care journalistic practices and their effects on public understanding and health literacy. Section two of this chapter examines the experiences and perspectives of current health care journalists, while sections three through six describe university and other educational initiatives designed to remedy some of the challenges facing health journalism.
Human-interest framing in health journalism
Human-interest framing is a popular type of story that is used in many different forms of media. These stories can range from profiles of individuals, a group of people, an animal or object to the use of the emotional appeals of conflict, economic consequences and morality to draw a reader’s attention to a particular topic. They are usually positive in nature, but they can also be exposes or confrontational.
Health journalism has often been criticized for using human-interest framing to attract readers and garner a response from consumers, but this type of reporting is crucial for addressing issues that affect the public. Moreover, human-interest framing can be a way to highlight the needs of the community by giving them a face and a name. This type of reporting can also help in drawing the attention of government officials to a certain issue and motivating them to take action.
According to a study published in the American Behavioral Scientist, health journalists often use the human-interest framing to generate empathy and sadness from their audiences. However, they should be aware of the risks associated with this type of framing. Human-interest stories can lead to an overexposure of a particular person or event, which could have negative consequences. Furthermore, these stories may encourage a false sense of concern among the audience and a lack of responsibility from the individual being featured in the news.
Another problem with this framing is that it can distract the reader from the root causes of an issue. It is important for health journalists to use the most appropriate frame to address an issue, especially during a pandemic. This will ensure that the story is factual and accurate, while also evoking the right emotions.
A study that examined the effect of China’s LBC policy on news coverage found that while it had no impact on how much content was produced, it did influence what frames were used. Specifically, nonparty media wrote more LBC articles and used the human-interest framing more than party media did. In addition, they also used the constructive frame more than the others.
Audience orientation in health journalism
Medical journalism is an interdisciplinary field, combining knowledge of both rhetoric and science in the service of communicating medical information to a reader audience. In particular, medical writers draw on the methodologies of fields such as biostatistics, medicine, English, public health and pharmacy. Despite these differences, all medical writers share a common value: to articulate medical science in a way that is accessible to the general public.
In the context of health journalism, human-interest framing is correlated with a particular audience approach: one that addresses the audience as patient-consumers (see Table 1). This approach is typical for classic human-interest narratives that recount patients’ or their next of kin’s experiences with disease. It is not surprising that this approach also corresponds with a dominant understanding of the etiology of illness and the attribution of responsibility to avoid or fight it.
However, the analysis reveals that in half of the articles with human-interest framing, an alternative audience approach is present: one that addresses readers as citizens or as professionals. This audience orientation is characterized by the inclusion of calls for political intervention. Such a narrative approach is often accompanied by critiques of medical errors or substandard care. These results support the hypothesis that health journalism with a citizen target audience is not merely a form of ‘framing the news’, but is instead an attempt to repoliticize medical information by addressing its audience as both professional and political actor.
The analysis also reveals that biomedical professionals are featured in roughly one third of the human-interest stories, which is a result of the high number of stories with human-interest framing in Spanish newspapers that feature interviews and feature pieces with doctors and other biomedical professionals. Similarly, these stories typically lay out their personal experiences with a particular disease or treatment and the benefits of new treatments and technological breakthroughs.
Despite the increasing diversity of American news audiences, contemporary science and health journalism remains constructed for an English-speaking audience. This study aims to examine how this narrative is connected to dominant understandings of disease and the attribution of responsibility to avoid or combat it, and how it may limit the content minority audiences receive. To accomplish this, the study uses a comparative methodology to analyze two distinct groups of publications: intermedia agenda-setting newspapers and popular science magazines.
The role of specialist medical reporters in health journalism
As the plethora of online news outlets has grown, it is difficult to find an outlet that doesn’t publish or broadcast specialized health news. These outlets often have a more limited audience, but can produce extraordinary and award-winning work. However, their content is largely aimed at trade audiences and may be inaccessible to general readers. It’s also unlikely that these publications will have a significant effect on public understanding, health literacy, or desired health behaviors.
Despite these constraints, efforts are underway to improve health journalism. These efforts range from academic programs offering degrees to organizations that connect researchers and journalists. Regardless of the form these efforts take, the goal is to promote more thorough and accurate reporting of medical research, and in turn to foster healthier behavior by readers and viewers.
A 2015 study found that the chief challenges for reporters were low willingness of authorities to render information, red tape and limited cooperation with the press, lack of access to latest statistics, time limitations, a shortage of health-related literature, difficulties in interpreting statistical data, and lack of specialized training on health news writing. The study included 34 journalists from different media institutions in Isfahan. Respondents were asked to answer two open questions about their experiences in this area.
It is not surprising that many of these difficulties are related to economic pressures on the media industry and on individual reporters. These include shrinking staff, budget cuts, the need to meet ever-increasing news traffic targets, and a shortened time frame to report on important events.
In addition to these financial concerns, journalists are often subjected to the pressure to “break” news. This means that they are encouraged to act quickly, without sufficient time to thoroughly investigate a story or develop a context. This is especially true of online outlets where the speed of publishing can be particularly challenging for reporters to keep up with.
This fast-paced culture of “breaking news” can be harmful for health journalism because it discourages thorough and accurate reporting. It can also lead to excessive and misleading hyperbole in stories. There is some evidence that articles featuring external comments by specialists in the field contain less hyperbole than those that do not.