In Depth

Web Dicey as a Research Resource

Health Care Reporters Must Be Skeptical, Separate Facts From Fluff

Andrew Holtz vividly recalls the days of poring over medical journals in the depths of college libraries to do research for a story.

“The amount of health and medical information available from my desktop computer with an Internet connection is just amazing. There’s a wealth of information on the Web,” said the former CNN medical correspondent and current board member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Still, Mr. Holtz said, whether it’s Web- or TV-based health information, doled out by “The Doctors” or Dr. Oz and the like, “The first job of a journalist is to be an independent and skeptical observer. We’ve got to be able to stand alone. We don’t know everything. I’m not an M.D., so I go to M.D.s for information.”

Professional journalists can benefit from the information available on the Web, but as media consultant and health care author Mary Ann Cooper pointed out, many popular sites are more consumer-oriented. The savvy health care media learns to separate the facts from the fluff.

“A site like WebMD.com is a noble concept, but you can get lost in a maze of menus,” Ms. Cooper said. “The expression TMI [too much information] can apply here. CNN.com does a fair job of analyzing timely health topics combining original reporting with the latest medical news off the wire services.”

She suggested using these sites as a starting place. “Often, if a university study or doctor’s name is mentioned, these sites provide tips or leads to follow up on to flush out original reporting,” she said.

“There are progress points in how we are doing our jobs as healthcare journalists, and there is more support,” said Mr. Holtz. “The AHCJ conference every year is getting bigger. There are more online resources, activities on the list-serv, articles posted on the Web site, really strong conversations going on among journalists with tips and advice and how to make things better.”

Health care information has become a television staple as well, but Mr. Holtz expressed concern about the quality of celebrity doctors dispensing advice. “Medicine is a very small part of health. One of the things I worry about with M.D.s on television is that they tend to focus on what they know, which is medicine. They are leaving out a lot of other things that are part of public health and how to stay healthy in the first place,” he said.

“For a long time the health beat has had this obsession with medicine. You go to the doctor usually when you’re sick. Doctors treat illnesses. Medicine is not the answer. It’s a portion of health. We need to look beyond that,” Mr. Holtz added.

CBS medical correspondent Dr. Jonathan LaPook has expanded his scope beyond TV with the new CBS News Web site DocDotCom. “The idea is to do a deeper dive, to go behind the scenes. We’re trying to make what we put on the Web more multimedia. And what we really want to do on the Web is make it interactive and have it linked to other materials and let people ask questions. We’re just figuring out how to do that,” he said.

Using video, for instance, Dr. LaPook has filmed sequences exclusively for the Web that re-create what happens during a stress test. Another sequence will find him strapped to a gurney for a simulated trip to the hospital in an ambulance. “We’re going to do the emergency room, too. We’re going to film behind the scenes and identify who’s the most important person when you walk through. We point out the triage nurse, the charge nurse, all the important people.”

Celebrity physicians are popular in media today, much to Mr. Holtz’s displeasure. “It pains me to say that, but I don’t see anyone on television right now that I trust completely. My roots are in broadcasting. I was at CNN from 1980-97. Back then the mantra was, ‘The news is the star.’
Now they have a different business model, one that everybody else is using. We’re a celebrity-driven media,” he said.

Ms. Cooper is skeptical, too, but she recognized why Dr. Oz has been a success. “The key is an ability to inspire confidence. Dr. Oz, like Dr. Phil, has an ability to connect to the audience. His way of explaining complicated conditions inspires confidence,” she said.

“The problem with the segments devoted to health issues on ‘Today’ is the brevity. They give viewers enough information to start their own investigation online—starting on the NBC Web site. ‘The Doctors’ is an interesting concept—real professionals doling out information, dressed for the part, including a ‘Dr. McDreamy’ in scrubs as one of the show’s hosts.”

Whether on the Web or on the air, AHCJ members and all health reporters need to follow Mr. Holtz’s advice: “Be an independent and skeptical observer.”

Ms. Cooper concurred. “Measure twice, cut once. Double-check your facts and don’t rely on one source for any story. Beware of duplicated stories on different sites and always follow up with original reporting. Find your own local expert to put on record.”