Health care journalism: An endangered species?

A critique of the health care coverage on the morning shows at the major networks has generated considerable buzz this past week.

Gary Schwitzer, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication and publisher of HealthNewsReview, gave ABC, CBS and NBC a failing grade and concluded the morning health news "may be harmful to your health":

One picture is quite clear. The morning health news segments on ABC, CBS and NBC do the following regularly:

– Unquestioningly promote new drugs and new technologies.

– Feed the "worried well" by raising unrealistic expectations of unproven technologies that may do more harm than good.

– Fail to ask tough questions.

– Make any discussion of health care reform that much more difficult.

Professor Schwitzer provides more than a dozen examples of specific stories, ranging from weight loss to heart disease, that are one-sided, short on data and hype the "gee-whiz" factor at the expense of solid information.

I’d agree the media needs to take a good share of the responsibility for unrealistic consumer demands, false hopes and a high use of tests, technology and prescription drugs that drive up costs and might not be medically justified.

From my perspective, however, there’s an even bigger issue the HealthNewsReview critique more or less glosses over: The dwindling newsroom resources for covering health care, period. It’s no secret the news industry is under a tremendous amount of strain right now. When a newspaper like the Boston Globe – home of Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center – axes its weekly health and science section, you know the situation is serious.

I’d argue it’s even worse at the small community newspapers that are the backbone of the American news industry. Newsrooms at these papers have always been relatively small. Few of their reporters have ever had the luxury of devoting themselves full time to covering health care; they’re busy covering other things as well.

Health care reporting is more challenging than most. It’s about science. It’s about technology. It’s about statistics. It’s about institutions. It’s about people. It’s about community dynamics and relationships. Covering it is like climbing a series of mountains with no end in sight.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work in a community where there’s always a lot happening in health care. Folks in health care here have been incredibly generous with their time (they even return phone calls) and their willingness to share what they know. But the learning curve is steep, and I feel humbled and stupid on almost a daily basis.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that health care journalism is ailing so badly. Many newsrooms simply don’t have the time or the staff to invest in covering health care at the level it deserves. I don’t see this changing dramatically any time soon.

We here in rural Minnesota ought to be especially concerned. There are compelling stories about rural and local health care that need to be told. Rural health care is not the same as health care in cities and suburbs. The market is different; the community and institutional dynamics are different. We can’t rely on the state’s largest newspapers to provide the coverage. For one thing, they have their own news to cover; for another, they’re not vested in rural health in the same way that rural readers and rural communities are.

Who’s going to tell the health care stories in rural communities? It’s a question that leaves me deeply worried.

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