By Elizabeth Jensen
Special to TelevisionWeek
Leaving aside the rare tornado or hurricane, if a television meteorologist gets a forecast wrong, viewers are usually inconvenienced at most: They don’t take their umbrella and it rains, or they overdress on a day that turns out to be a scorcher.
It is a different story when a TV health or medical reporter hypes a risky new treatment or incites panic in reporting a public health emergency.
Yet it is the weather reporter who can seek accreditation from an industry association-the American Meteorological Society-to prove that he has a working knowledge of the subject. When it comes to deciding whether a health or medical reporter understands the topic she is reporting, viewers are on their own.
That may explain the polls that say even though television is a main source of medical news for many Americans, they have a profound distrust of what they are being told.
Gary Schwitzer, director of the health journalism graduate program at the University of Minnesota and a former medical correspondent and head of the medical unit at CNN, has been pushing since 1992 for voluntary accreditation of health and medical reporters. ABC News Medical Editor Dr. Tim Johnson joined the cause in 1999, when he wrote an article in the New England Journal of Medicine in which he said he had “reluctantly come to the conclusion that the fraternity of medical journalists should develop some kind of system to ensure that those who wish to become medical journalists have a basic knowledge of the subject and some way of certifying them that would be recognized by employers and the reading and viewing and listening public.”
The idea has largely fallen on deaf ears.
“While I think it is a great idea theoretically, I am well aware of the logistical difficulties in doing it,” Dr. Johnson conceded in an interview. “Given the strong egos involved, it’s like herding cats, I suspect.”
Proponents of the idea argue that some kind of “seal of approval” similar to the one the AMS has handed out to more than 1,400 radio and TV weathercasters since 1960 would raise the level of reporting on a subject of vital importance to viewers. Opponents don’t like the idea of anything that smacks of First Amendment interference or licensing for journalists, and some question whether meteorologists are high enough in the journalism pecking order for their accreditation to count as a valid precedent.
The health and medical beat is vast, encompassing everything from new drugs and new diets to the national policy debate over how to pay for medical coverage and public health concerns such as West Nile virus and the possibility of a major avian flu pandemic. When he started covering the beat, Dr. Johnson, a medical school graduate and licensed physician, found even he didn’t have enough schooling in the issues his beat required. So he went back and earned a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University.
Yet, far from letting their reporters specialize, Mr. Schwitzer said, many stations today simply treat the health beat as another general assignment topic. In a four-month analysis in 2003 of the 840 health reports on the early and late newscasts on the four main local network affiliates in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market, Mr. Schwitzer said he counted 58 separate reporters tackling the beat, “not one of whom covered it full time.”
Exacerbating the problem, in Mr. Schwitzer’s opinion, is “that now many stations view this as a must-have franchise-a promotable entity-but they don’t put resources into it to make it worthy of a franchise. They don’t give people the time on the air or the training off the air to be able to cover topics adequately.” In his 2003 study, he said, more than two-thirds of the stories lasted less than a minute, and more than half were 30 seconds or less.
The result, he said, is coverage that is “gee-whiz, high-tech, breakthrough-oriented, without asking the serious questions.” Too many reporters, he said, “bow to the first credible thing they hear from anybody in a white coat and a couple letters after their name.”
Mr. Schwitzer renewed his advocacy for accreditation last summer, the day after he ended his term on the board of the Association of Health Care Journalists, an organization he has envisioned as a possible overseer of the process. The idea provoked a heated debate, though many of the objections came from print reporters, not on-air journalists. Many, Mr. Schwitzer said, didn’t make the distinction that he was proposing voluntary certification, “not mandatory licensing, which is something I wouldn’t support in my lifetime.”
The idea hasn’t come up for formal consideration by the AHCJ or its board, and the association has no official position on accreditation, said Andrew Holtz, an independent journalist who serves on AHCJ’s board.
“Accreditation is something that is not done for journalists in the U.S.,” he said, adding, “A weathercaster is not necessarily a journalist.” Noting that he was speaking solely for himself and not the association, he said: “There is a lot of discomfort in having an association of journalists hold itself up as being the arbiter of who is a journalist and who isn’t. That can get into dangerous territory. On the other hand, there is a lot of poor-quality reporting out there.”
Journalists or not, weathercasters must show a certain level of professional credentials to be certified by the AMS, which last year introduced a new Certified Broadcast Meteorologist program that it says is intended to “encourage a broader range of scientific understanding, especially with respect to environmental issues.” Certification requires a college degree in meteorology or the equivalent, and applicants must take a written exam and submit televised work for review. The certification can be renewed every five years by providing proof of ongoing professional development.
By contrast, the tight financial situation at many news outlets, Mr. Holtz said, means that many health and medical journalists are discouraged from taking time away from work to get any outside training.
As an alternative to certification, which he called a restrictive measure, Mr. Holtz envisions the possibility of developing some form of advanced, outside training as a positive way for reporters to get ahead in their field and that could also be used by stations as a marketing tool.
“If we can do something that station management would see as being in their financial interest, that they can market and sell to boost their ratings, then they will be for it,” he said. The question, he added, is: “How we do that without tripping over the very difficult hurdle of not trying to bar somebody from being a journalist, or deciding who is a journalist and who isn’t?”
Mr. Schwitzer said he isn’t giving up on his idea, despite the opposition.
Dr. Johnson is less optimistic. “I always thought it was a great idea that would never happen,” he said. “But maybe by continuing to talk about it, it will at least encourage people to get those skills, whether they get formal accreditation or not.”