In Depth

Rushing to the Scene: Health Care Journalism

Television Journalists and Programmers Scramble to Satisfy Demand for Health News

For attendees flocking to the March 27 opening of the annual convention of the Association of Health Care Journalists in Washington, D.C., it’s a good time to reflect on the hot-button topics of the past year.

“We’re seeing more health care coverage than we ever have, on all kinds of topics,” said AHCJ President Trudy Lieberman, professor at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. “Station owners, managers and news director think that’s what people want—and they’re right. As we’re moving toward the election, we’re seeing news outlets trying to tackle health care policy stories. Despite the challenges in the industry, there’s more to cover than before, more complex issues and better trained reporters and more resources.”

Health care stories have never been more popular, from young people just out in the workforce who don’t have health insurance to baby boomers facing issues of aging. But as the appetite for health care stories grows, stations are slashing the resources that are the foundation of good reporting.

“There is absolutely no doubt that at all levels and all genres, journalism is under assault in terms of cutbacks and layoffs,” said Matt James, senior VP, Kaiser Family Foundation. “Trained and experienced health care reporters are being let go and experiencing cutbacks in research money and travel. As a consequence, the door has been opened for PR agencies and others to swoop in and get more of their stories on the air … [video news releases] masquerading as news stories.”

The creep of commercialism into health care reporting is another concern for many in the industry.

“In this wounded economy, the [station faces] many pressures—and the pressures are getting worse every day—in the direction of looking more kindly at press releases, VNRs and briefs from wire services,” said Gary Schwitzer, director of the health journalism master’s program at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communications. “Another potentially dangerous situation is being created if the people with specialized training aren’t looking at these things coming into the assignment desk. Without that special eye,
there’s more risk of things coming in from single sources with a vested interest.”

Several media experts noted that in 2007, several veteran health care reporters were let go from their jobs.

“Stations in the past that had someone with a title of health reporter are now doing it with an anchor read,” said independent health care journalist Andrew Holtz, who writes the online Holtz Report. “Most of the coverage is really short roundups of stories and use affiliate feeds or other sources to keep their costs down. You see constant turnover with veterans leaving and younger, cheaper employees coming in.”

Veteran medical reporter Peggy Pico, of NBC affiliate KNSD-TV in San Diego, has a somewhat different perspective.

“What I’ve noticed, especially on the network level, and even on the local level, is that the ‘white coat’ doctors who read medical news produced by other people are being let go,” she said. “I’m an R.N., but I shy away from covering nurse’s issues to avoid even the appearance of a bias. I think there’s a concern that some of these doctors are anchors, reading other people’s work and not doing unbiased journalism. Is a doctor going to report on the problems of the [American Medical Association] or a bad doctor in town? I’ve always asked, would you have a police officer cover the crime beat or would that give the appearance of bias?”

Effects of Downsizing
Even so, she realizes the downsizing of the health beat is more related to economics.

“They’re trying to get the most bang for the buck from every reporter,” she said. “I produce and write all my reports. They get all that from one person, unlike a doctor, who will need a producer. News organizations are consolidating, and that includes extraneous staff who need someone else to produce their work.”

In addition to on-air reporting, stations are paying attention to their Web sites, and health coverage is a critical component online. In addition to broadcast stories on the Web site, stations often take a feed from other sources to bolster local content.

At WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Va., Director of Digital Media Kelly Zuber said that, in addition to the broadcast stories, she relies on aggregated content from World Now, a company that provides Internet technology and content for local media Web sites including broadcast TV, newspapers and cable.

“They’ve done an excellent job in adding health content,” said Ms. Zuber. “That really gives us a great way to pull our own local content in, along with experts and stories and links from all over the country.”

CNN Newsource provides a feed to 850 stations in North America, including health care stories with medical correspondents Sanjay Gupta and Judy Fortin. Ms. Fortin does a daily health minute focused on topical issues such as stories on autism for April, which is Autism Awareness Month.

“Medical is one of those staples,” said CNN Newsource Director Beth Carter. “The stations use our feed in a variety of different ways. They can use their local stories and tie our stories in on the Web site. Nowadays it’s not just TV. You have to think about how it can be transferred to other platforms. We anticipate with the autism series that stations will put the material on both platforms.”

Pooled Resources
Ms. Pico said her station benefits from an initiative set up by NBC two years ago whereby all the O&Os contribute to a pile of news stories that has a theme each month. Stations can pull stories as desired for broadcast or Web sites.

“This is great for stations that might not have a medical reporter,” she said.

Rather than simply rail about the cutbacks that are shrinking health care coverage, organizations such as AHCJ and the Kaiser Family Foundation are beefing up training opportunities. Ms. Lieberman said the AHCJ Web site has expanded and noted other organizations also are doing training.

“There are a lot more resources than there were during the last health care reform in 1993 [and] 1994,” she said.

One of those resources is the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is launching new efforts to train journalists and to study the state of health care journalism.

“Kaiser Family Foundation plans to provide more opportunities for journalists to get support through fellowships, training, site visits and money to do reporting projects,” said Mr. James. “A new program will study the health journalism business and what the changes are in terms of the content. The program will survey journalists in terms of how their jobs have changed, the impact of VNR and PR companies and if they’re asked to cover more gee-whiz stories or those generated by drug companies. We’ll also do content analysis work to see what’s coming out in the news stories that’s getting through to the public, compared with stories in the past.”

The tough conditions created by the economics of broadcast TV economics create many challenges for stations and reporters attempting to feed the rising appetite for health care journalism.

Although news of veteran reporters losing their jobs and the rise of hospital-sponsored health news weigh heavily on the negative side of the balance, AHCJ’s Ms. Lieberman is still betting that health care journalists will weather obstacles to do their job.

“The times are good and bad, but the positives outweigh the negatives,” she said. “Our mission at AHCJ is to move in a positive direction.”