Medical Journalists – Where are They (We) Going?

January 8, 2010

By Kate Johnson

It’s cold and snowy in Montreal and the other day, as I was skiing down a crusty slope, icy crystals stinging my eyeballs, I closed my eyes. I couldn’t help it. When sharp objects fly into your cornea, your lashes instinctively close – even if you are hurtling down an icy hill at top speed. I could have had a catastrophic crash (such things do happen in the blink of an eye), but I followed my blind instinct, and everything was fine. And even before my eyes had re-opened I realized, that this is what I – and many other journalists are doing right now, everyday, in our careers.

Winter has descended on the age-old profession of journalism, changing the landscape so drastically that all the landmarks are gone. Little remains of the theories and ground rules I studied for my journalism degree. “The business” as I knew it when I started out 23 years ago has transformed beyond anyone’s wildest predictions, “undergoing a level of change that presents both unprecedented peril and possibility”, according to health journalism expert Gary Schwitzer.

Many of my journalist colleagues, myself included, have lost our jobs in the past two years, hitting the freelance beat once again with only bones to pick for scraps of work. It is the dawn of a new era  – one in which I am confident our skills and expertise will eventually be valued again. But in this transition to the new media, we must close our eyes and follow our instincts.

It has been argued that, of all areas of journalism, science and health/medicine reporting are taking the hardest hit.

In his report on the state of health journalism in the U.S., Schwitzer says “new information sources could lead to an unprecedented breadth and depth of health information for the news consumer interested in seeking it. But declining newspaper readership and network TV viewership have led to business decisions that cut the resources for coverage of health news.”

The same can be said of medical news for physician readers, which has made up a significant part of my background.

And, New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier recently said science coverage is “basically going out of business”.

So here I sit – amid a growing army of medical, health and science reporters, with stories to write and no-one to pay for them.

Well, before you bring out the violins let me quickly say that’s a bit of an exaggeration – there are just less people paying. And on the upside, that allows us more time for skiing and reading and blogging – and general contemplation of our situation (the latter being both good and bad).

While the immediate situation may be worrisome for those of us who seek to make a living from science writing – I have decided that the future is rosy.

Thanks to health journalism critiques like Schwitzer’s, the standards for good health/medical journalism remain high. And it is thanks to those high standards that a demand for good reporting in this field exists and remains. An intelligent readership wants to know what we, the science journalists have to say, but it is also incumbent upon us, the journalists, to find what the readers want to know.

We used to know this – or we thought we did – but nothing is the same any more in this business. Readers with a less than sophisticated understanding of medicine (“health literacy”) are navigating the web, and medical doctors and PhD scientists are browsing beyond their historical territory of medical journals. We are writing for all of them, which, on the one hand can offer a refreshing and ever-shifting perspective on our craft, but can also trigger some disturbing symptoms of multiple personality disorder.

Blasting superficial, unsubstantiated “health” articles that offer ten tips to a longer life, or flatter abs (etcetera), health journalism critics offer good arguments against writing for health magazines. I understand this frustration – but actually, that (and the dollars) is why I (sometimes) do. If good journalists abandon this portal to the public there is no hope that the “ten tips” will ever be evidence-based, or better, replaced.

Good science journalism is alive and well, but at the moment it is not always located where, “in the old days” you might have expected to find it. As newspapers and magazines have trimmed their staff, many science journalists have reincarnated themselves in the new media. At the moment, the blogsphere might be likened to the fabled underground tunnels of a major city. But, as blogger and co-founder of Steven Johnson suggests, this new “ecosystem” of journalism is in its infancy.

“There are dozens of interesting projects being spearheaded by very smart people, some of them nonprofits, some for-profit. But they are seedlings.”

He is confident that these seedlings will grow and feed the larger jungle of new media that will provide “more content, not less; more information, more analysis, more precision, a wider range of niches.”

Analysts like journalism professor and blogger Jay Rosen suggest the new media blurs the distinction between traditional and citizen journalists – all of them bloggers – all of them reporting their experiences and feeding the larger system.

Johnson envisions the old newspapers filtering this never-ending feed of information, picking the best and most reliable sources and discarding the rest. “The implied motto of every paper in the country should be: all the news that’s fit to link.”

So that takes care of the readers, they will still get their high quality science reporting. And that takes care of the writers – they will hopefully be linked-to and read. But that still leaves the question of who will pay them? For the moment, I’ve got my skis facing downhill, and I am hurtling forward, though I can’t always see. As long as we follow our instincts to write, the path we started on decades ago will once again become clear.

2 thoughts on “Medical Journalists – Where are They (We) Going?

  1. You’ve hit the nail on the head, Kate. What I find most disturbing is the massive migration of talented medical writers toward industry or PR sectors, just so they can make a living. Thus, critical journalism fades away and industry-friendly “reporting by press release” flourishes (or should I say “festers”). Witness the many examples of churnalism on Schwitzer’s site.

    But to paraphrase the Jeff Goldblum character in Jurassic Park, “good journalism finds a way.” There is hope in knowing that the niches we will be working in five years from now don’t even exist today. All we have to do is emulate our primate ancestors and keep swinging from branch to branch, looking for the tastiest fruit, or shushing through the moguls, looking for that pocket of powder. It really is survival of the nimblest. Keep on skiing!

    • Five years from now? Help! I guess I should at least invest in a pair of ski goggles. There are many ways to get from point A to point B on a ski hill, and now, more than ever, it requires thinking outside the box!

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