As The Boston Globe‘s unions vote on whether to bow to the inevitable and make the financial concessions demanded to keep their newspaper alive, it seems a sad but apropos time to bring attention to a new survey on the declining state of health care journalism. The survey, authored by Gary Schwitzer, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and founder of the Schwitzer Health News Blog, shows how financial pressures on the media are hurting the quality of health care reporting.
Health care journalists themselves are the first to acknowledge this disturbing trend. Fully 94 percent of the reporters interviewed agree that media downsizing has seriously hurt the quality of health news coverage. Here are some of the other key findings of the survey, according to Hot Topics in Journalism and Mass Communcation :
• Forty percent of the reporters surveyed say the number of health reporters at their organization has gone down since they’ve been there, and 11 percent say they personally have been laid off over the past few years due to downsizing.
• Nearly nine in ten respondents think health care coverage leans too much toward short “quick hit” stories, and two-thirds say the trend toward shorter stories has gotten worse in the past few years.
• A majority of respondents say there is too much coverage of consumer or lifestyle health, and too little of health policy, health care quality, and health disparities.
• Just under half of the journalists surveyed say that their organization sometimes or frequently bases stories on news releases without substantial additional reporting.
And if all of that is not alarming enough, here’s a really scary finding:
• About one in 10 journalists in the survey say his or her own organization sometimes or frequently allows advertisers, sales staff or sponsors to influence story selection or content. Yikes! What’s happening to the separation of editorial and business — a bedrock principle of journalism?
You might ask: why does any of this matter? For the answer, one has only to look at the difference in the way media organizations have covered the current swine flu outbreak. While newspapers with experienced health reporters like The New York Times and The Boston Globe provided thoughtful and measured coverage of the epidemic, other media outlets have been less circumspect. Here’s some interesting commentary by Stacey Woelfel, chairman of the Association of Electronic Journalists, berating her fellow television journalists for sensationalizing the current outbreak and literally beating the story to death in the race for ratings.
Despite such sensationalistic coverage, health officials in the current administration have so far refrained for insisting that Americans get inoculated against the latest flu strain. Perhaps the public health community learned its lesson from the last swine flu scare in the 1970s, when the Ford administration ramped up production of a poorly designed vaccine. In the end, the vaccine ended up killing and crippling more people than the flu itself.
The 1970s debacle is precisely why good health coverage matters. We need experienced science and medical journalists who can provide the kind of accurate and authoritative coverage that allows policy makers to make wise decisions about the public’s health. This time around, the nation’s top health advisors managed to ignore the media cacophony and do what they thought was right. Next time, we may not be so lucky.