Scanning the Scrum at the Association of Health Care Journalists. News and Navel-Gazing Challenges for Journalists and Scientists Alike.

April 26, 2010

By Kate Johnson

I got to head out of town for the Association of Health Care Journalists’ (AHCJ) meeting last week in Chicago. It was great to connect with so many other people who do what I do – or a version of it.

And there was an interesting mix of news and navel-gazing – the latter being of particular interest to me.

Despite the buzz about the first two big name speakers – both of them fizzled on the podium. Oddly, I thought it was an excellent way to kick off the meeting because it underscored a fundamental issue facing health and medical journalism.

Thomas Frieden (director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and Kathleen Sebelius (secretary U.S. Health and Human Services) are very comfortable at the podium delivering packaged messages to the media. So, that’s what they did: Frieden about anti- smoking campaigns, and Sebelius about health care reform.

Journalists, who are used to waiting politely while the speakers give their spiel, dutifully did their part.

And then it got more interesting in the question period.

Responding to Frieden’s comment that it’s hard to get the media to pay attention to the issue of smoking, one journalist – (anyone know his name?) pointed out that the “Smoking Kills – or Disfigures – or Dismembers” story has been beaten like a dead horse.

Herein lay a pivotal point but unfortunately it escaped further scrutiny because question period was winding down.

There was a similar missed opportunity in the Sebelius question period.

Journalist Emily Walker from MedPage Today asked Sebelius about her biggest disappointment relating to health care reform. Hardly missing a beat, Sebelius jumped in about ‘death panels’ and end-of-life care, mourning the loss of “some of the complicated issues that would have been wonderful public policy”.

Both Sebelius and Frieden were frustrated about their messages not getting across or getting mangled – a process in which journalists played an integral role. Too bad they only mentioned it when asked. I wish we could have examined this in more depth – for once it was the perfect place and time.

The topic is covered wonderfully in bloggers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s book Unscientific America. How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. I started reading it on the plane to the AHCJ meeting, and finished it on the way home.

It points out that frustrations like Frieden’s about the media’s failure to run yet another “Smoking Kills ” story are an example of what they call the “science-media divide”.

It also, by the way, reveals his poor understanding of behavioral medicine. As  I’ve written before, studies clearly show that scaring people will not help them  quit smoking. As Frieden said himself – “people want to quit” – so wouldn’t the   CDC make more progress in addressing the problem if they concentrated on why  people aren’t quitting (as I’ve written about here, for example)?

But going back to Frieden’s frustration with the media,  Mooney and Kirshenbaum  talk about scientists and journalists as “two cultures that rely on one another and yet start out from vastly different assumptions, making their interactions fraught, perilous, or worse.”

Physicians and researchers often blame journalists for inadequate medical news coverage, and journalists often blame the public (or their bosses) for insisting on sensationalism or watered-down science.

The public wants health and medical news delivered with drama, surprise, pace and finality – none of which can be easily found in medical journals or CDC podium presentations, medical doctor and former TV newsman Dr. Michael Breen told AHCJ in a session on health literacy.

I’m not convinced that is what the public always wants, but I do agree that the “real news” in scientific studies and government press conferences is buried deep – sometimes almost beyond reach.  That’s the challenge for journalists: we must search further and dig deeper. But it’s also a challenge for scientists. Mooney and Kirshenbaum write that scientists have to do their share and take a more active role in communication. “Rather than assuming that today’s media will dutifully carry information about science to the entire American public, it falls to scientists and their supporters to shift gears and carry their knowledge and message to the entire media,” they write.

The AHCJ meeting was a wonderful forum for health and medical journalists to share their thoughts about how best to receive and then communicate complex health and medical information to their readers and audiences. We’re all battling discouragement, as publications and broadcasters trim their medical coverage, jobs disappear, and more of us compete for a shrinking number of opportunities. It was great to step back from the writing to think about where we go from here. Looking forward to more on that at next year’s meeting.

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