Looking back at 2020, how well did health media do its job? Where did it succeed and where did it fail?

John Whyte, chief medical officer, WebMD: I’d give the media a B+. They let the public know what was going on and gave them the data, especially in terms of cases. The problem was that most did not put it into context. It was all “doom and gloom” and that doesn’t work long-term. How does doing public health measures allow us to crush the virus? Why is it so important to do these things and how does it impact your life? That’s where we needed to do better. We also need to do a better job of localizing the stories. Just as all politics is local, communicating health stories is also “local.” Some communities were seeing lower rates and some higher, but media rarely made that distinction.

Lori Grant, CEO, Klick Health: 2020 was not an easy year to be a health journalist. The whole world experienced a health event up close and in real time and journalists faced the twin pressures of getting the story quickly while also getting an often complex scientific story right. While not perfect, we believe the media by and large did a good job of balancing these two objectives.

The New York Times, in particular, transcended the usual role of journalism by becoming almost a public-health site, providing real-time updates on COVID hotspots and now the vaccine rollout. Another positive was that as the year went on, the media became progressively more explicit in calling out false statements about COVID and/or its treatments, even when made by senior political leaders.

“I commend the media for bringing mental health to the forefront of the conversation around COVID-19. This is a prominent issue that many people are suffering from, with the added layer of loneliness and ongoing anxiety.”

— Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, LifeStance Health

Kate Cronin, global CEO, Ogilvy Health: Some outlets focused too much on being the ones to break any COVID-19-related news instead of offering in-depth coverage of the details and circumstances about that news. Articles about the role of mouthwash, melatonin, vitamin D and zinc proliferated across the news media. Although small studies were alert to potential benefits of these remedies, more research and real-world data are needed to make clear recommendations to the public. The noise around COVID-19 prevention and treatments can often be confusing for the general public.

Andrea Palmer, president, Publicis Health Media: The fascinating thing about 2020 is that “health media” became an all-encompassing term. Whether in the way broadcast networks, online publications and radio stations (i.e., traditional media) kept us constantly in the know with round-the-clock coverage of COVID, or the way more novel media — streaming networks, video conferencing software and e-commerce platforms — became the avenues through which we managed our daily lives in this new COVID reality … everything became a form of health media. So in that sense, health media helped make the facts, realities and truths of the virus more visible.

Ann Brown, EVP, marketing, Health Media Network: I think the big fail would be characterized by politics over science. The institutions we have always trusted and looked to for guidance have been challenged at every step. This created a breakdown in communication and trust.

Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, chief medical officer, LifeStance Health: I commend the media for bringing mental health to the forefront of the conversation around COVID-19. This is a prominent issue that many people are suffering from, with the added layer of loneliness and ongoing anxiety. We have seen prominent public figures and even reporters themselves talking about their mental health, but readers may benefit from seeing more community members — health workers, business owners, everyday faces from all areas of society — talking about how they are coping.

Alyssa Bleiberg, senior group director, media and engagement, W2O: What was truly great was seeing how outlets spoke to their specific audiences or found new audiences to reach. For example, NBC’s Nightly News for Kids on YouTube was a new way to engage a different audience who craved the information.

Linda Ruschau, chief client officer, PatientPoint: The health media gave us a front-row seat to the industry’s unprecedented agility and collaboration to accelerate vaccine trials that delivered hope to a weary world. I’m hopeful this critical behind-the-scenes look allowed many to develop a new or greater appreciation for pharma. Another topic I was pleased to see covered often was the importance and safety of going to the doctor amid the pandemic. From local TV to The New York Times to trade publications, the health media played a critical role in delivering compelling messaging encouraging patients to continue to get safe, needed care.

Cate Carley, executive director, Agency Group, InStep Health: Technology became the best way to stay connected, especially for those who needed information in real time. For example, thanks to the swift deployment of technology tools and social media, Survivor Corps quickly evolved from one dedicated person’s experience into a huge community that has taken real action during the pandemic. It is a lifeline to so many as they battle this virus.

Carly Kuper, SVP, public relations and corporate communications, CMI/Compas: All media became health media. Dedicated health publications and general publications with a dedicated health beat reporter were much better prepared to handle the continuous onslaught of news. Hopefully, this will lead more general journalism outlets to staff reporters with health expertise.

Craig Haines, chief revenue officer, Verywell: Most publishers successfully transitioned to reporting news in addition to the evergreen content they historically provide. That allowed quality information to be available to an audience suddenly stuck at home asking themselves a lot of important questions about their health. But as the composition of our population changes, health media needs to think about diversity. Moving forward, healthcare publishing can do a better job of ensuring content properly reflects the diversity of people looking online for answers related to their health.

Rachel St. Martin, senior group director, media and engagement, W2O: What really impressed me was that even though media outlets could have taken advantage of our hunger for information by monetizing coverage, they instead did the opposite — broke down paywalls and made content accessible and digestible. Reporters became soldiers in the COVID-19 fight in their own right, wielding eloquently conveyed facts as their weapons. This was beyond professional for these reporters; it was personal. They were battling vaccine hesitancy rhetoric to save lives. Their passion came through in each carefully constructed article.

Through mid-January, how effectively has health media reported about COVID vaccines?

Matt McNally, CEO, Outcome Health: The health media has done a very good job reporting on the status of COVID-19 vaccines. However, with repeated polls and surveys indicating that many people are unclear about the safety of the vaccines, compounded by an uncoordinated effort to get the vaccine into people, we have a long way to go. Health is personal and health literacy is fragmented, with each American asking, “Is this safe for me and my family?” It would be helpful to provide the public with better coverage that more clearly indicates how each COVID vaccine works in humans, as well as information on potential side effects, effectiveness and herd immunity.

Jo-Ann Strangis, chief content officer, Remedy Health Media: Federal vaccine guidance makes references to “immunocompromised persons,” but we do not have clarity regarding whether that term applies to people living with a virus, such as HIV, that by design compromises the immune system (and whose ability to do so is almost completely prevented by medications). So our successes and failures hinge on following the evidence and separating what’s real versus what’s not and doing so quickly. It’s fascinating and frightening.

Craig Mait, president and chief revenue officer, Mesmerize: We’ve relied on health media to monitor the progression of vaccine manufacturing, approval and distribution from start to finish. However, what is missing is answers as to when the general public will receive the vaccine. We know that frontline and essential workers, as well as the elderly, are first in line to receive the vaccine. But when can the general public expect to receive the vaccine? How will they get it? What is a realistic timeline for achieving herd immunity and how can we ensure we’re part of the herd?

David Bowen, Ph.D., head of policy and advocacy, Klick Health: As a former lab scientist, I’ve personally worked with mRNA and viral constructs — the two main technologies at the center of the race to create COVID-19 vaccines. I feel nothing less than awestruck at the speed and success of the global scientific effort to create not one but several effective COVID-19 vaccines. Media has begun to tell the story of how these vaccines were developed — not just in the final push to create a vaccine, but in the many preceding years of work that went into developing the technology, both in companies and at university labs.

The challenge, though, is that for every thoughtful story in traditional media about vaccines, there are hundreds of social media posts laden with misinformation. I suspect that the only way to combat this online misinformation is with lived experience and trusted testimonials.

Rob Parisi, SVP and GM, Verywell: The challenge is that the stakes have never been higher and this information is constantly evolving at a high speed. The publishers performing best are those that are not only covering it in real time, but are also providing science-backed information with real takeaways that can be applied successfully in the reader’s life.

Ann Brown, EVP marketing, Health Media Network: The reporting on COVID-19 vaccines in the general media represents a series of highs and lows. It starts with the exhilaration of the news of coming vaccines and ending with unilateral disappointment in the reality. At the point-of-care level, we are working to deliver available information and content that details every conceivable aspect. If we do our jobs well, that information will educate and inform, which in turn leads to better communication between physicians and their patients.

John Kenyon, VP, managing director, Meredith Targeted Media Health: We’re seeing health media reporting in real time on a massive scale. This is impressive on the part of the news-
gathering media and, personally, I find it fascinating. It speaks to what journalism is about at its core, which is gathering facts and informing the public.

Andrea Palmer: There’s a big disconnect between facts and beliefs. This is true of so much these days, but in the case of the virus, disinformation has potentially deadly consequences. Health media is doing its part in dispelling a lot of this confusion. People were anxious and distrustful, but as more information became available more and more people said they trusted in the science and recommendations of the medical community.

Carly Kuper: One positive is the effort to encourage people who are Black to get vaccinated. It has become much more understood by the healthcare industry that previous abhorrent actions (such as the Tuskegee trials) paired with ongoing systemic racism has created a general mistrust of the healthcare industry that must be actively repaired. Because the Black community has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, this is an opportune time to create programs to not only improve vaccination rates but also the overall relationship.

John Whyte: The health media talked about how the vaccine could crush the virus. Most showed a diverse range of eligible persons getting the vaccine — that’s a critical piece. We still need to work on helping people understand risk versus benefit, though. For the overwhelming number of people, the risks of side effects are much lower than the benefits of protection from COVID. We also need to explain more clearly to the public how no corners were cut. And the speed of development is one of innovation — we should celebrate that, rather than be scared of it.

Kate Cronin: The politicization of the vaccine has led to some coverage of vaccine development based on the political views of various news outlets. Lately, reporters have begun to shy away from including the anti-vaxxers’ points of view in their articles. Years ago, these voices would have been included — possibly even as a dominant perspective — in vaccine-related segments or articles, even without scientific evidence. The challenge for newsrooms going forward will be how best and when to cover an adverse event. This happened recently when a healthcare worker in Alaska experienced an allergic reaction to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Positioning this one incident as breaking news is problematic if it is an isolated case.

Cate Carley: Even for those of us in the industry, it’s hard to discern what is fact versus what the media (or certain factions within it) wants you to believe. Health media can be an asset in providing real-time updates and clear information on when, where and how the public can get vaccinated. Pharmacy leaders, as an example, have been doing a great job of getting the word out about when to expect access in community pharmacies. We need to see more of the same across all media.

What are the issues you’d like to see discussed more frequently and/or in more depth during 2021?

Dean Mastrojohn, SVP, media, Goodfuse: If 2020 taught us anything it is the power of scientific innovation to save lives on the grandest of scales. The pandemic will leave an indelible mark on science and pharma news coverage as we move ahead — specifically, not only how these stories are covered, but which stories are covered. Science has now officially hit the mainstream and the general population has a growing appetite for this kind of news that had barely existed before. The genie is out of the bottle.

This newfound mainstream popularity will also beg additional questions. How do we now achieve similar quick advances in other disease areas, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s? Why has it taken so long? The general population will begin to ask difficult questions that have seldom been asked pre-COVID. The pandemic has lit a spark for a desire for facts and understanding and the media and general scientific community will need to heed this call to achieve a greater understanding of these issues.

Theresa O’Rourke, VP/editorial director, Remedy Health Media: Racial disparities. Those two words dominated health newsfeeds in 2020, but we need more incisive, action-oriented dialogue. We know that COVID-19 has disproportionately infected and killed Black Americans and many of us can rattle off the stats: Black Americans are 3.4 times more likely than whites to be hospitalized from COVID-19 and nearly three times more likely to die from the virus. In 2021, we need less data and more deep dives. We need policy change. We need culturally responsive healthcare. We need more personal stories of biased care directly from Black people. Health media needs to do more.

Alana Rockland, senior group director, media and engagement, W2O: I’d like to see a focus on how to repair the current divide in our country, as we are at an inflection point in the U.S. I’d also like to see more discussions about making the world a healthier place, focused on diseases that disproportionately impact diverse populations (sickle cell, heart and autoimmune diseases) as well as openly discussing mental health stigmas and medication access for all people.

Lori Grant: The three top health issues in 2021 are going to be COVID, COVID and COVID. That said, the nature of the story will, we hope, change from the acute firefighting phase of the pandemic to a more sustained rolling back of the pandemic through systematic vaccination and continued emphasis on testing. One major issue to cover in 2021 may be the disconnect between people’s expectations of a rapid end to the pandemic and the early coordination struggles for the vaccination effort in the U.S. If the pandemic remains largely unabated into the summer, we may well see even more social tensions and conflict around continued adherence to critical public health measures, such as mask-wearing.

“The general population will begin to ask difficult questions that have seldom been asked pre-COVID. The pandemic has lit a spark for a desire for facts and understanding and the media and general scientific community will need to heed this call to achieve a greater understanding of these issues.”

— Dean Mastrojohn, Goodfuse

Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn: When it comes to mental health and the pandemic, I would like to see coverage go a step further. We are normalizing talking about it and talking about how we can cope with it, but can we normalize bringing into these stories how people can access care and [addressing] how easy is it to get access to help for those who are struggling.

Andrea Palmer: There’s not an industry, business or brand that hasn’t been touched by COVID-19 or forced to reimagine some, if not all, of its operations and messaging. It’s time for health to transcend the 30-second “talk to your doctor today” spot and play a bigger, more visible role in culture.

John Kenyon: We need continued coverage around the need for diversity and inclusion, and expanded coverage around how companies have transformed their business and industries in response to COVID-19. We also need more about the great things coming out of our pharmaceutical companies. The speed and efficiency in developing the vaccines for COVID-19 has softened the often negative tone around big pharma.

Carly Kuper: The impact of the pandemic on minority groups — in particular people of color — is one area where there is a lot of room for improvement and growth. Minority groups are the majority in America, and it is not sufficient or effective to speak to everyone in the same way.

Nate Lucht, president and CEO, InStep Health: Obviously the COVID-19 vaccines are at the top of everyone’s list. We need to be updating the public in real time at a national and local level about where and how they can get their vaccines. The current environment of elevated vaccine awareness provides a great opportunity to reinforce the importance of all vaccines — traditional childhood regimens, flu shots and shingles, among others.

Meanwhile, the pandemic and the resulting impact on schools, businesses, travel and relationships has taken a real toll on every one of us. We must remind people to seek the support they need to adapt to our new normal and help our kids adjust to life at Zoom school — and hopefully later this school year or certainly next year, help them reacclimate to in-person school. Mental health can often be dismissed or deprioritized, but in my mind it is probably the most important health there is.

Craig Mait: We need to know what reopening is going to look like and what is going to change as a result. Are we going to continue to wear masks? Are we going to continue to social distance? Who is going to tell us how to safely move forward? We also hope for more transparency as to when the public can expect to be vaccinated and a realistic timeline for achieving herd immunity.

Kate Cronin: Poor social and economic outcomes often lead to poor health outcomes. I’d like to see continued media coverage of this important issue to spotlight it and invite debate, allowing for discussions and the development of solutions for closing the gap and improving access for susceptible communities. Local and ethnic media can be particularly important in influencing communities and public opinion around policies.

Rachel Berman, SVP and GM, Verywell: With many outlets and the continued rise of social media influencers, it can be very difficult to separate fact from fiction in the world of digital health. This will be particularly important in the area of vaccine adoption in 2021. We need to continue to educate consumers on how to recognize and listen to science-backed information over pseudo-science.

Linda Ruschau: I’d like to see more explanation of why — and how — the industry was able to develop vaccines so quickly and use that to reinforce the importance of development work. In addition, we have to continue to ensure that patients get the care and support they need or more health crises will boom as COVID-19 subsides. To borrow a poignant quote from Dr. Sandip Patel, a medical oncologist, cancer researcher and professor, “Cancer is not going to take a timeout during COVID, nor will we.” People need to see this as an opportunity to really focus on their health, and I think health media can play a key role in reminding us all of the importance of more preventive, adherent care.