“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)

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