Association Head Calls for Care in Health Reporting

Mar 13, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Veteran journalist Len Bruzzese became executive director of the 850-member Association of Health Care Journalists last April, after seven years working at Investigative Reporters and Editors and teaching at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. Mr. Bruzzese was editor of The IRE Journal, co-authored “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook” (fourth edition) and edited 10 other books while at IRE. Before that, he worked in editing, reporting and management positions with newspapers and wire services, including The Olympian in Olympia, Wash., the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal, The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., USA Today and Gannett News Service in Washington.

TelevisionWeek correspondent Debra Kaufman talked recently with Mr. Bruzzese about the challenges facing the AHCJ as it heads into its annual conference, scheduled for March 16-19 in Houston. The following is an edited transcript of that interview.

TelevisionWeek: How has the organization changed in recent years?

Len Bruzzese:The Association of Health Care Journalists is a fast-growing organization. We’re seeing so much more interest in health from various angles: traditional medical research, public health, the business of health care and medical ethics. Because of that growing interest from many different directions, the organization has started to attract journalists from other beats. And reporters are beginning to see health care issues arise, whatever their beats are, whether they’re consumer reporters, government reporters or business reporters.

TVWeek: Why are we seeing more TV stations and broadcast journalists interested in covering health care issues?

Mr. Bruzzese: The increased interest in health has at least something to do with the boomers approaching retirement age. By sheer force of their numbers, there is much bigger interest in health. The boomer is asking, Why can’t I be in better shape? Why can’t I be healthier? Why can’t I have an operation that fixes everything for me? Why don’t they have a vaccine for me?

TVWeek: What impact has the Internet had on health care journalism?

Mr. Bruzzese: The association covers newspapers, trade publications, newsletters, TV, wire services and radio, and also online, which is a growing segment. You’re seeing specific medical e-newsletters and health Web sites. Sites like WebMD are of particularly easy access for the consumer who might want to look up specifics of an illness or background on a medication before he takes it. That kind of information is custom-made for the Web, and now a lot of health care-oriented organizations have answered that with medical Web sites.

TVWeek: What percentage of your membership consists of broadcast journalists?

Mr. Bruzzese: Television has also played a growing role in our organization. I don’t know the exact figures, but I’m going to say that probably 20 percent of our membership is involved in TV broadcast, and it has been growing. As we get ready for this conference in Houston, I’ve noticed more TV people signing up-and a surprising number of radio people. Why is the television segment growing? Possibly because you’re seeing increased sponsorship of local medical reports by hospitals and insurance organizations, and on a national scale the pharmaceutical companies are bringing a lot of money to the table in the broadcast arena. It may be the tail wagging the dog when you see ads that talk about a disease you didn’t know existed before and somebody has solved it with a pill. The money is there for the advertising. But our interest is in making sure that what is reported is accurate, that it’s not misleading in any way or [promising] cures-that it’s evidence-based.

TVWeek: What are the biggest issues facing health care journalists in broadcast?

Mr. Bruzzese: Specifically in the broadcast arena, there’s the need to be cognizant of where the advertising money is coming from-be clear that that not dictate the content of what is reported. And reporters need the backing of their editors and news directors in reporting as accurately as possible without being pressured. I haven’t gotten personal reports from members who’ve been pressured, but I know that this does go on in the industry. One reporter recently left a medical reporting job claiming that her bosses said she didn’t make her stories “sexy” enough.

TVWeek: How do TV journalists deal with this particular issue?

Mr. Bruzzese: We directly address the needs of the broadcast station within the context of accurate health reporting. One of the panels at our upcoming conference takes on how to make the story compelling while keeping it accurate. There’s the recognition that yes, you need to draw in the viewers-you do have to catch their attention-but you can’t feed into hype and you have to be careful of words like “cure.”

TVWeek: What other challenges do broadcast health care journalists face?

Mr. Bruzzese: One of the biggest challenges is just the nature of the business-the short turnaround times. This kind of reporting calls for study, care, accuracy, and yet you’re still dealing with the deadlines of television reporting. What I am seeing is an increasing number of reporters-especially in this association-who have advanced degrees in the science arena. We’re seeing people with master’s degrees in public health, MDs and RNs, registered dietitians. And a lot of people are going back for master’s degrees that focus on an area of interest to them, be it public health or science or psychology.

TVWeek: What are the most prominent health care issues TV journalists are covering?

Mr. Bruzzese: The desire of people for healthier lifestyles helps to drive the appetite for health reporting. The idea that we’re all living longer is great as long as the quality of your life during those extra years is sufficient to afford you a decent lifestyle. And there’s been more of a realization that we have to take charge of our own lives. We can’t just turn to experts constantly and turn our physical lives over to them just because they’re doctors. People feel more responsible for themselves now, so they need to get unbiased, objective information.

Of course, there are also potential health crises, with issues such as bioterrorism, the bird flu, a potential pandemic, and our members are preparing. One of the panels at the upcoming conference is on how to prepare your community for pandemics, with the whole idea that you cannot wait and be reactive after an emergency. As the health journalist, you are the going to be the one they turn to for answers, so it would help if you provide this kind of information all along. And at least research it all along. We saw that with Katrina and the health impacts following that and other natural disasters. We saw it with anthrax scares. We’re seeing it now with the bird flu. The good journalists research these things in advance with the idea they’ll be ready.

TVWeek: What plans does the AHCJ have to support health care journalists?

Mr. Bruzzese: As we go to Houston for the annual meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists, we’re excited about the potential for continued growth and the potential for more in the way of training, both regionally and locally. There’s a desire to fill that void that exists for people covering the different aspects of health. I think we’re going to increasingly be working with other journalism groups-whether that’s business writers or science writers or investigative journalists-and try to mesh the best of both worlds for the reporters out there. One of the ways our members can educate themselves is with conferences and workshops that we plan to increase. Another way is to make sure there are repositories of research that people can tap into. We’re also in the middle of a major Web overhaul that promises to provide rich resources on-demand for he
alth reporters. And we’ll probably be doing a weekly e-newsletter that tells some of the latest things going on and points them to other good work happening.

TVWeek: What does the future hold?

Mr. Bruzzese: The future looks good for the Association of Health Care Journalists and our members. I think that whenever you’re in a specialty or a sub-specialty within a greater industry like journalism, there’s hope for becoming sought after as an expert in that area. Our hope is that this translates to better, stronger, more well paid and more stable careers for our members.