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Director's Comments Transcript: Health Journalism's Decline 04/27/2009

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Greetings from the National Library of Medicine and

Regards to all our listeners!

I'm Rob Logan, Ph.D. senior staff National Library of Medicine substituting this week for Donald Lindberg, M.D, the Director of the U.S. National of Medicine.

Here is what's new this week in MedlinePlus.

To listen to Dr. Lindberg's comments, click herelisten

A report recently released by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation suggests medical writers believe the quality of health journalism is declining in the U.S. The study (co-sponsored by the member-supported Association of Health Care Journalists) reveals an apparently deep-rooted, new, professional concern about the health of the news media, the practice of thoughtful journalism, and the extent of self-criticism among the U.S.'s medical journalists.

In a Washington, DC press conference that accompanied the report's release, two keynote speakers noted recent declines in profits within the legacy news media industries (newspapers, news magazines, and TV/radio news) and explained the report's findings suggest that the news media's financial reversal is starting to adversely affect specialty news beats, including consumer health news, health policy coverage, and reporting about medical research.

To backup for a moment, several newspapers with a tradition of full time medical, health, and science reporters currently are in bankruptcy proceedings, or are publicly acknowledged to be in financial difficulties. These include: the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Chicago Tribune. Newspapers with a health reporting legacy that recently reduced circulation days, or switched exclusively to the internet include the Detroit Free Press and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Please note the geographic spread of the names.

The Kaiser Family Foundation report, based on about 50 one-on-one interviews with health journalists selected to be representative of newspapers, broadcast, and the internet (and geographically distributed in large cities and smaller towns), suggests the news media's declining revenues result in an emphasis on stories that can be prepared quickly. Although what the report calls 'quick hit' stories have existed since medical and science news reporting began in the 1920s, the interviewed reporters and editors noted they are increasingly forced to focus on stories with few sources, or stories that are based on pre-packaged news releases (often generated by corporate, governmental or scientific organizational sponsors).

The interviewees explain this development is problematic because it limits the time journalists have to do investigative, or in depth news stories. For example, a hypothetical investigative story might challenge the information in a health organization's press release by discovering counter evidence and opinions among other biomedical researchers. In addition, a reliance on pre-packaged public relations means what becomes health news accidentally can be dominated by the capacity of organizations to distribute press releases in lieu of what's authentically important, or newsworthy.

Gary Schwitzer, the report's lead author, and a former CNN health producer, added current trends result in less time to explore complex health policy issues, such as the relative merits of changes in government or private health insurance programs, the comparative quality of local hospitals, and explaining health quality and safety issues.

Schwitzer, the publisher of which critiques health news coverage on an ongoing basis, noted the irony that a decline in explanatory health policy coverage is occurring at a time when a new Congress and Executive Branch are considering major changes in the U.S. health care system.

While public opinion research suggests most Americans do not find journalists are candid about the news media's shortcomings, the report suggests that in medical journalism events may be triggering some self-reflection. Incidentally, the aforementioned grades health news stories from diverse news organizations via rigorous quality standards and provides ongoing journalism about medical journalism. To find it on the internet, type: healthnewsreview (all one word) .org in any web browser.

The press conference also elicited a couple of countertrends, such as occasional efforts by health bloggers to point out possible manipulation of health statistics and policy information by vested interests. In the press conference, an editor for the New Republic and a health journalist-blogger, explained his peers recently found a nationally distributed news story (highly critical about the Obama administration's health care reform proposals) seemed to be partially based on information from a source who was recycling criticisms leveled at the Clinton administration's ill-fated, proposed reforms in the early 1990s. The blog-based exposure of the similarity of the comments and supporting evidence allegedly convinced some news editors to reconsider the source's credibility and redo some reporting about the issue.

The Kaiser Family Foundation also is set to launch a new, independent service to provide health care policy news and information, called Kaiser Health News. Kaiser Health News illustrates a new trend in medical journalism where more reporters and editors may work for independently funded foundations rather than news media corporations.

Returning to MedlinePlus, medical news coverage is always available – just look for 'Current Health News,' which is in the center of's home page. 'Current Health News' provides headlines and you also can peruse by-date health news from selected news services.

The prominence of health and medical news on suggests the importance of the news media as an independent and immediate source of consumer and patient information. Medical news coverage only supplements the thousands of independent, carefully reviewed websites provided by (among others) government, independent medical research, health care professionals, consumer health organizations, corporations, and medical industry groups that are the staple of's resources. Still, a possible decline in the news media's independence and time to cover health and medicine impacts the diversity of potential health and medical information, which strikes us as an important development.

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