Getting it Right

Mar 12, 2007  •  Post A Comment

You don’t have to be a doctor or medical specialist these days to be on the cutting edge of health care news and information. There are a multitude of media platforms for medical access, from the local and network newscasts, with their doctor-correspondents reporting regularly in two-minute sound bites, to captured direct video in physicians’ waiting rooms. Discovery Health Channel is nothing but health care journalism, while the Internet is a cornucopia for those seeking medical information on everything from splinters to spinal cord surgery.

The explosion of health care stories and news and how they’re being reported will be

among the chief topics on the minds of attendees at the National Conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists this week in Los Angeles.

On television, health-care news reaches viewers because they can relate to the stories they hear.

“I think there is a need for health journalism in TV news because they are always looking for stories they can promote,” said Maria Simbra, M.D., medical correspondent for KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh. “I think health-care journalism is here for the long haul, but I think you’re going to see more multimedia come in. There are going to be other avenues that will compete with television in terms of getting the information out.”

Dr. Simbra lauds the AHCJ, of which she’s a board member. “One of the great benefits is that you have other journalists who are covering the same types of things,” she said. “We have this great listserv to help us. If somebody has a question and they’re not sure where to go for a particular piece of information, they’ll post it on the listserv, and it’s amazing how many people will chime in to help.

“We also have good discussions about ethical issues. I think the group gives you a sense of camaraderie, and knowing that there are other people doing what you’re doing and you can turn to them for help.”

The conference agenda includes a special briefing and the presentation of annual awards for excellence in health-care journalism. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and members of his administration will talk about their groundbreaking health-care policy for the state and its national ramifications.

Steve Case, founder of AOL and Revolution Health, is one of many scheduled speakers, and there are myriad panel discussions on subjects including healthy aging and how to cover it, the complexities of health IT and digital recordkeeping, disease prevention in the workplace and stem cell policy and reporting.

Dr. Simbra will be moderating a panel on technology and multiplatform. “The session is all about multimedia,” she said. “We’ll have Jennifer Pollard, the Web site manager at KDKA. Also, Joe Howry from the Ventura County [Calif.] Star, who does similar things in the print media. And there will be a podcaster, too, MJ Vilardi, CEO of Vilardi Creative Associates, which will be good for freelancers who might want to try that technology.”

Mike Hoyt, executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, will anchor a discussion of how to keep local TV health news accurate and honest, a hot-button issue to many journalists.

Dr. John Corso, author of “Stupid Reasons People Die,” questions the quality of local health-care news reporting. “Information is presented in the manner necessary to gain viewership-short, bulleted sound bites that oversimplify the truth and tend to leave the viewer not completely informed,” said Dr. Corso. “This often leads to the wrong interpretation of how the new information affects an individual viewer, who then goes off and does something stupid, like disposing of an expensive bottle of life-saving medication that was working perfectly, without so much as a phone call to the doctor.”

Linda LaRue, a certified personal trainer and registered nurse with a master’s degree in exercise physiology and sports medicine, also questions the effectiveness of health-care news reporting. “I believe the media need to be more thorough in qualifying who they are representing as experts,” she said. “I think the whole celebrity-angle thing has gotten way out of hand. In the infomercial biz, celebrities are known as ‘channel stoppers,’ but that doesn’t mean they know a thing about what they are hawking. Rather, they’re good actors who can sell it and themselves.”

Dr. Simbra agrees compromises must be made, particularly when it comes to time. “Time is always a big factor. In short-format local news, we have between a minute and a minute and a half to tell the story, which isn’t always enough time to explain the nuances,” she said. “The time element is always a challenge, and also the quick turnaround. You get your assignment first thing in the morning, you have to find some local people to talk about it and then put it together rather quickly for the evening news. Having to humanize the story in so short [an] amount of time can be tough.”

AHCJ’s annual conference is produced by the Center for Excellence in Health Care Journalism and AHCJ, and will convene March 15-18 at the Hilton Universal City in Los Angeles.

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