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The job of specialist reporters: cutting the crap stories

“If the specialist health reporter is a threatened species in traditional media, then so is quality media coverage of health issues.”

So wrote University of Sydney researcher Dr Julie Leask today, when commenting to Croakey on a new study in which she and colleagues investigate the views and practices of journalists who were involved in reporting on avian influenza in 2006 and 2007. 

The study, published in BMC Public Health, is based on interviews with 16 print, radio and TV journalists, including seven specialist health reporters.

I clearly have such a vested interest in these findings – being a specialist health reporter – that I feel obliged to mention:

1.    I wasn’t one of the subjects, and

2.    I agree and disagree with the finding about the merits of specialist reporters. Yes, we have benefits. But we also have some downsides – eg growing so close to our beat and our contacts that we can sometimes miss the bigger picture, as well as forgetting what’s important to the wider world.

One of the findings that really resonated with me is the role of specialist reporters as gatekeepers – in trying to keep the crap stories out of the news.  This can be thankless work, and doesn’t tend to make you very popular with news managers.

Meanwhile, here are some snippets from the study:

• reporters shared the same concerns as health professionals about the depth, accuracy and social impact of their reporting.

• specialist health and medical reporters had much greater capacity to produce better quality health stories. This occurred despite the similar seniority of non-specialist reporters and related to key factors specific to their role. Their familiarity with technical aspects of medicine and health enhanced their ability to comprehend and accurately report complex issues. They were able to build networks of contacts among experts with whom they could develop trusting relationships, and so gain greater depth and insight into stories, and pass on tips about ‘the talent’ – expert sources – to chiefs of staff and junior journalists. They were more likely to produce a health story sourced from their own contacts, rather than derive news and expert comments from other news.

• specialist reporters had a significant gatekeeper role for letting stories in, and keeping them out, of the paper. As one newspaper medical reporter said:

If all I’ve done all day long is keep three really crap stories out of the paper then I consider I’ve done a good day’s work. And sometimes that can be quite a lot of work if somebody higher up than me has got themselves all ignited about something. Then there’s a lot of work to do to hose people down and to bring these things round.

The study puts forward several recommendations for public health advocates seeking to engage with the media, including appealing to journalists’ ethical values.

“Journalists prioritise the reporting of information over almost all other considerations. However, they are also sensitive about the potential negative impacts of media coverage of public health issues. It is therefore worth making an explicit appeal to a journalist’s values and making a case for covering, or not covering, a particular issue or taking a particular angle (always understanding that the journalist needs to exercise his or her own autonomy and judgment in the end).”

The paper also notes that the rise of social media and the decline of the traditional consumption patterns of mainstream news media presents challenges and opportunities.

The opportunities include the capacity for public health professionals to have direct and unfiltered input into issues via blogging and Twitter; to take advantage of social networking sites to promote and advocate for health; and the ability for trusted health organisations to become the authoritative sources of accurate health information, communicated on their own terms.

“However, in a far more fragmented media context there is the increasing diminution of the role of specialist reporters with resulting loss of baseline technical knowledge, gatekeeping and thoughtful, investigative health journalism.”

Indeed…and for those concerned about such matters, can I refer you to YouCommNews, a new website that aims to help counter such trends….(another declaration required here, as I’m involved with this project)

Comments 4

  1. Ben Harris-Roxas says:

    Interesting study, I’ll have to re-read the paper in greater detail. I agree with Melissa’s points about the pros and cons of specialist and generalist journalists, based on my limited interactions with both groups.

    Specialists undoubtedly have a much better understanding of the technicalities and how to communicate them. They also have more skin in the game, so to speak, and as the paper notes they play a more significant gatekeeping role.

    Specialist health journalists are undoubtedly unsung heroes saving us from a flood of PR-driven health stories. The problem is their gatekeeping function is also rarely scrutinised and often it’s their attitudes as much as their knowledge that leads to them deciding something’s a “bad story”.

    Still, we need to do what we can to support them.

    NB. I’m specifically not referring to Croakey in these comments.

  2. Julie Leask says:

    Melissa mentions the downside of specialist reporters sometimes missing the bigger picture.

    We agree. As we pointed out in the paper (page 10), gatekeeping could also reduce diversity in story, angle and source selection. It could privilege dominant biomedical notions of health while failing to represent minority views or those more marginalised discourses such as the social determinants of health.

    Indeed, in discussing the pandemic problem and its solutions, we found that medical reporters conceptualised it as a biomedical problem, subject to solutions such as antiviral medication and vaccines rather than public health, social or policy solutions such as social distancing, quarantine, agricultural or trade regulation.

    In other words, having specialists is a two edged sword but I think their advantages outweigh these disadvantages.

  3. Ben Harris-Roxas says:

    This report was circulated via one of the listservs I’m on:

    Is Good Health Reporting an Oxymoron? [Health Journalism Workshop]

  4. Melissa Sweet says:

    Coincidentally, a study from the Media Doctor Australia group has just been published at PLoS Medicine: http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1000323

    Those authors also concluded that specialist health reporters do a better job. Would have been nice to see their recommendations include some of the innovative solutions that are being found in the US to the demise of specialist expertise, eg a health foundation is now funding a specialist health reporter in at least one part of the US. To provide independent coverage, ie not related to the foundation. As John Menadue has suggested, if we leave it to media companies to solve this issue, we may fall short. Other institutions may need to start stepping up to the mark.

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social policy
Summer reading 2020-2021
Tasmanian election 2021
Testing Croakey News category 1
The Croakey Archives
#cripcroakey
#HealthEquity16
#HealthMatters
#IHMayDay (all years)
#IHMayDay 2014
#IHMayDay15
#IHMayday16
#IHMayDay17
#IHMayDay18
#LoveRural 2014
Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
Oceania EcoHealth Symposium 2013
PHAA conference 2013
2014 conferences
#IPCHIV14
AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
CRANAplus conference 2014
Cultural Solutions - Healing Foundation forum 2014
Lowitja Institute Continuous Quality Improvement conference 2014
National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
Rural & Remote Health Scientific Symposium 2014
2015 conferences
#CPHCEforum
#CRANAplus15
#HSR15
#NRHC15
#OTCC15
Population Health Congress 2015
2016 conferences
#AHHAsim16
#AHMRC16
#ANROWS2016
#ATSISPEP
#AusCanIndigenousWellness
#cphce2016
#CPHCEforum16
#CRANAplus2016
#IAMRA2016
#LowitjaConf2016
#PreventObesity16
#TowardsRecovery
#VMIAC16
#WearablesCEH
#WICC2016
2017 conferences
#17APCC
#ACEM17
#AIDAconf2017