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Media Downsizing Risks Quality of Health Journalism

Report Cites Poor Coverage of Health Disparities, Global Health

New America Media, News Report, Khalil Abdullah Posted: Mar 19, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C. As weakening ad revenues wreak havoc on the bottom line of media companies and newspapers, the quality of health reporting in America will almost inevitably deteriorate. This finding was the centerpiece of The State of Health Journalism in the U.S., March 2009, A Report to the Kaiser Family Foundation by Gary Schwitzer, associate professor at University of Minnesotas School of Journalism and Communication.

News media is the number one source of health information for the American people, said Matt James, senior vice president for media and public affairs at the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). But as James looked over the nearly overflowing room at Kaisers Barbara Jordan Conference Center, his comment reminding the audience that the gathering for a panel discussion about the report wasnt a job fair evoked laughter. Nervous laughter.

James, of course, was alluding to the growing number of out-of-work journalists and editors who are often the first to suffer job loss when media companies suffer revenue losses. In its March 2009 survey of AHCJ (Association of Health Care Journalists) members, underwritten by KFF and also distributed at the March 11 event, newsroom cutbacks ranked number one of top challenges facing health journalism today.

According to the AHCJ, the other challenges, in descending order, were: lack of in-depth coverage (18 percent), lack of knowledge/experience among reporters (16 percent), influence of advertising/industry (12 percent), making complex issues accessible (11 percent). The panelists touched on all of those issues. They also corroborated Jamess assertion that the media landscape, due to the Internet as one of several disruptive technologies, is literally changing at warp speed.

January Payne, an associate editor for U.S. News & World Report, said, Most health stories are going to our Web site. The demand for quick-hit stories, Payne explained, typically met by producing shorter articles, has eroded what other panelists agreed was their most valuable commodity: time. You used to have time to sit and think through a story, Payne said. She added that stories on health disparities go uncovered because theres not a lot of demand for it. But quality is also at issue. In the AHCJ survey, 36 percent of its membership agreed that the quality of coverage of health disparities was poor, followed closely by global health coverage at 33 percent.

Editors often tend to fixate on the number of clicks a story generates, Payne said, which can lead to assumptions; what our editors think readers want. With only five years in the journalism trade, Payne was a neophyte compared to her co-panelists, but even she said the profession has changed significantly since she started.

Schwitzer, the reports author, conducted more than 50 interviews of journalists across media platforms. These interviews, combined with the AHJC survey and, according to the reports introduction, a literature review of more than 100 published pieces of research on health journalism, formed the basis of the report.

Schwitzer said that journalists told him "they were not able to do, any longer, inside their news organizations, the good work they felt they were capable of doing. He cited an AHCJ finding that 94 percent of those polled said that bottom line pressures were affecting the quality of news. Schwitzer decried the trend toward too many cutesy, soft, fluffy stories and also was critical of news you can use columns.

Though most of the discussion revolved around print media, Schwitzer had no kind words for television. He said he was concerned about the harm being that is being done in incomplete news coverage. A KFF study has shown that television is a major source of health news for Americans, but that [l]ocal television health news seems to be particularly susceptible to financial pressures influencing news coverage.

Jackie Judd, a veteran of ABC News, CBS News Radio, and National Public Radio, served as the events moderator. You managed to depress us all, she said to Schwitzer after his initial remarks. Later, Judd was somewhat defensive about Schwitzer's appraisal of television's coverage of health issues when he cited former Federal Communications Commissioner Norman Minow's 1961 comment that the medium had become "a vast wasteland. Judd said she was aware of reporting on "the economics of health care policy" and "there is a lot of coverage I see on TV about cutting-edge technology."

"When you see it," Schwitzer said, "would you please send me it, because I want to be fair."

The panel also included Jonathan Cohn, a blogger on health issues and senior editor at The New Republic, Trudy Lieberman, president of AHCJ and director, of the Health and Medical Reporting Program at the City University of New Yorks Graduate School of Journalism, and Laurie McGinley, a former deputy bureau chief for Global Economics and national health care policy correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. McGinley said that she left the newspaper after 27 years, but that it was not because of Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul and new owner. She is now executive editor of news for KHN (Kaiser Heath News), an initiative that will provide in-depth news health coverage to media. KHN products will be provided without cost. Were not trying to be a wire service, McGinley said, but rather a media resource that will provide important supplemental coverage.

Though many think of bloggers as free of the conventions practiced by traditional media, Cohn said the critical effect of newsroom cutbacks was the loss of institutional knowledge and accountability to editors.

He also took care to explain that bloggings immediacy can be a weakness; a comment might be made without sufficient thought or research. But there was an upside. My favorite six letters in the English language: Update! Cohn said. Through blogs, he remarked, you could revisit a story over and over, thus giving reporters the opportunity to correct not only their own work, but the capability to quickly challenge inaccurate information that might otherwise filter into public policy.

Twitter could also become a powerful media tool. I can see a lot of use for it down the road, Lieberman said. She talked about how health reporters could use the technology to get consumer reaction on recalls -- like the tainted peanut butter scare -- from specific geographic areas or even from particular stores.

In summarizing the reports findings, Vicky Rideout, KFF vice president and director of the Program for the Study of Media and Health, still said she was more optimistic about health journalism than the state of journalism overall. In fact, of staff journalists interviewed by AHJC, 42 percent felt the quality of coverage had improved, though 89 percent said that time for research was one of the leading keys to quality reporting. Despite a real division of opinion on where journalism is heading, she said that the demand for health news remains strong.

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