In Depth

Follow the Money

Costs, Reforms Key Issues in Health Arena

Veteran journalist Len Bruzzese, executive director of the Association of Health Care Journalism and its Center for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, has been at the organization’s helm since 2005. An associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, he worked with the school’s dean, R. Dean Mills, to relocate the AHCJ offices to the University of Missouri’s Columbia, Mo., campus. In anticipation of the upcoming AHCJ conference in Seattle, Mr. Bruzzese spoke with TelevisionWeek special correspondent Allison J. Waldman about a myriad of issues involving health care journalism and what’s in store for those attending the conference.

TelevisionWeek: What are the hot-button issues health care journalists across all media are going after today?

Len Bruzzese: Many of the same hot-button issues remain—health care quality and patient safety, for example—but some issues are increasing in importance this year. System reform is obviously the most high-profile. Insurance matters, affordability and health care as a local economy story are grabbing more attention. The importance of health as a money story is becoming more obvious.

TVWeek: What are the kinds of services that the AHCJ offers to media pros to help them do their jobs?

Mr. Bruzzese: First of all, we pride ourselves on offering a “professional home” for journalists focused on health matters. That means a concentrated community of fellow pros willing to assist their colleagues in understanding certain issues, in finding new sources, in asking the right questions.

TVWeek: What does AHCJ do specifically?

Mr. Bruzzese: We hold training events and offer educational fellowships that allow journalists at any level to continue learning and growing. We have a resource-rich Web site packed with tip sheets, reporter guides, source links, award-winning stories and tons more. We introduced a blog a few months back that allows journalists to check in daily for story ideas, member news and industry happenings. We have a very popular list-serv where reporters on deadline can send out an SOS for help on a story or help in understanding a health topic and get quick feedback. And it’s easy to overlook, but as an association, we feel it’s important to stand up for journalists’ rights—and the public’s rights—when it comes to First Amendment issues and open access to public records. We can often bring a higher profile—or louder voice—to those issues.

TVWeek: How do the changes in Washington, in particular the election of President Obama, affect the stories being reported on the health care beat?

Mr. Bruzzese: Of course, the biggest effect of a new administration is the renewed drive for health system reform. That will be one of the biggest stories for the country over the next several years. That means many more reporters are going to need to understand the intricacies of health care, health insurance, health-related businesses, etc. There are billions of dollars at stake, and news consumers will be looking for news sources they trust to explain it all to them. We also recently sent a letter to President Obama urging him, and his administration, to improve interview access within federal agencies. He has inherited policies that make it difficult for reporters to talk directly with agency officials and experts without prior approval. We’d like to see some logic brought to bear in this area.

TVWeek: How are health care journalists adapting their reporting to TV and Web broadcasting?

Mr. Bruzzese: Along with reporters from all media starting to carry video cameras with them, we’re seeing an increased use of social media tools to communicate in different formats and to different audiences. More reporters have health-related blogs; some are Twittering.

Although the pain at newspapers draws a great deal of attention, and deservedly so, journalists at TV and radio stations face similar threats as advertising revenues decline. As journalists in all media are asked to do more with less (including less time to study and research complex health issues), the training, collaboration and online resources of the sort offered by AHCJ become even more vital to preserving active and effective local news coverage.

In all media, the bottom-line pressures increase the temptation to rely on news releases, news aggregators and content syndicators that may have ties to the health care industry. By offering independent analysis and background of hot topics, as well as providing a list-serv and other ways for members to share tips and advice, AHCJ helps sustain high professional standards through difficult times.

TVWeek: What are your expectations for the upcoming conference in Seattle?

Mr. Bruzzese: Our conference in Seattle offers access to a lot of regional strengths: technology, global health efforts and cutting-edge research. There will be much more interest in health reform, of course, and the need to understand costs and economics. But we will also talk about how the shrinking world means health issues on the other side of the planet can lead to consequences locally in a very short time frame.

TVWeek: One of the high points of every year’s conference is the field trips …

Mr. Bruzzese: We’re excited about all of the field trip stops this year. Our only frustration is that there were many more possibilities that we couldn’t fit into the schedule. One of the keys for us is finding work being done that will allow reporters to say, “I first saw this on an AHCJ field trip.”

We’ve seen many things over the past years that were new, but then appeared (or started growing) everywhere. Reporters often have a leg up by having seen this innovation or research on a field trip and then can communicate it better to their own communities when it appears there.

We’re going to see more and more telemedicine efforts taking place, especially in more rural or far-flung places around the world. A field trip stop will include pediatric specialists conducting a remote—virtual—examination and consultation. Another tour will highlight work being done to fight malaria by exposing test subjects to vaccine-carrying mosquitoes. And while we’re all becoming more familiar with surgical robots, our field trippers will see a next-wave portable robot that can be controlled by surgeons over the Internet thousands of miles away from the patient, offering potential battlefield or even space travel use. And something new for us this year: an up-close look at neighborhoods that lead to disease and at those that promote health. How social determinants of place can make a difference in some amazing yet simple ways.

TVWeek: How has the tough economy affected this year’s AHCJ conference?

Mr. Bruzzese: We know it will be harder for some reporters to attend this year because of newsroom economics, but we’re hoping more journalists are starting to see the need and advantage of investing in themselves. Freelancers have long known, if they don’t put aside some training money each year for themselves, they will never get training opportunities. They know those small investments give them a leg up on the competition. More mainstream media-employed journalists need to start thinking that way, too. Sometimes you have to make the opportunities yourself.