Healthcare journalism needs a recovery plan

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The need for increased health and science literacy has never been greater. It's a crucial gap that must be filled if we are to promote evidence-based decision making, increase productivity, enhance economic competitiveness and ensure the continuation of the democratic process. The Obama administration is sending the right signals on making investments in education and technology but a survey of healthcare journalists conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Association of Health Care Journalists shows that the state of health and science media may not have turned the corner quite yet. 

Overall, the journalists expressed concern about “staff cutbacks, less time for reporting, fewer resources for training and more pressure to produce short, quick hit stories.” Almost all (94%) said bottom-line pressure hurts the quality of health news. Sixty-five percent judged the quality of health coverage as fair or poor, and only 1% said it was excellent.

Even so, respondents had “a cautiously optimistic view of the direction in which health journalism is headed.” While 24% said journalism in general was heading in the right direction, the number jumped to 52% when asked specifically about health journalism. This didn't give me much comfort, though. That still left 48% who thought health journalism was heading in the wrong direction.

Healthcare journalists are hungry for ongoing opportunities to elevate their knowledge and skills, yet 43% said training opportunities have declined. Twenty percent said opportunities increased. This could be among the reasons why the reporting of junk science continues to proliferate—too many coincidences and correlations are taken as causes and fact.

This less-than-rosy picture comes to us despite the availability of some terrific training programs, workshops and “boot camps” underwritten by various foundations, government agencies and companies. 

Maybe this will all turn around with time. I'm going to hope that we'll see demand for health and science reporting increase as we continue to shake off some of the anti-intellectualism that has bogged us down. 

And I hope that we'll see some newsrooms staffing up as the economy recovers. 

Paul Oestreicher, PhD is president of Oestreicher Communications, LLC
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