How do you advise people who want to be health journalists?

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Covering Health needs some help from its readers today. Felice Freyer, a medical writer at The Providence (R.I.) Journal and an AHCJ board member, is looking for advice to give people who want to go into health journalism.

Felice Freyer

Felice Freyer

Surely many of you have found yourselves in her position; so what is your advice? We’d like to hear from you in the comments below and we may feature the suggestions in an upcoming tip sheet. So here’s Freyer’s dilemma:

Every now and then, I hear from a young person who wants advice on how to start a career as a health journalist, and I’m never able to help. It’s embarrassing. Though I’ve been at this for a frightfully long time, I went the usual newspaper route of covering cops and zoning boards until the medical writer’s job opened up (thanks, Irene!). I don’t know if that’s even an option today.

But in any case, that route wouldn’t appeal to these people who come to me with rarefied credentials (such as one who contacted me recently, with a degree in public health and experience covering health issues in Third World countries). They are often clueless about today’s journalism world, but then, I realize, so am I.

What’s out there for beginners? Where would you advise someone to start looking? It is necessary to start as a freelancer or blogger, or are there actual jobs?

Update: We’re curious – how did you get into health journalism?

16 thoughts on “How do you advise people who want to be health journalists?

  1. melissa sweet

    My off-the-cuff thought is to start following media innovators on Twitter (both in general media and the health area in particular); it is a fantastic way to keep up with the rapid pace of change in the industry and to get ideas.

    Would also recommend getting some training in the online world – both writing skills, as well as the ever-increasing array of applications.

    At the Banff science communications course this week, I’ve been hearing that job opportunities are increasing for online science journalists/bloggers in the US. I don’t know if this applies to health reporting but it does seem that online skills are going to be a core requirement for the future.

  2. Katharine O'Moore-Klopf

    Those who are already generalist reporters might consider applying for California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program run by the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. ReportingOnHealth.org describes the program this way: “In workshops, field trips and discussions, fellows learn from nationally renowned health experts, policy analysts and community health leaders, from top journalists in the field, and from each other. Participants ‘graduate’ with a multitude of story ideas and sources, plus a thorough grounding in the principles and practice of good health journalism.” For details, see this page: http://www.reportingonhealth.org/fellowships

    Medical editing is another way to satisfy the urge to work on health-related materials. Here’s a piece about that career path: http://www.reportingonhealth.org/blogs/primer-medical-copyediting

  3. Lisa Stansbury

    I’m in Health Care Communications for a non-profit quality improvement organization. We write health care stories for the public everyday, and assist reporters as resources. Although we aren’t allowed to be members of the Association, because some see us as simply PR people, we still provide experience in the field that might be useful to someone who is trying to obtain experience. PRSA National has a health care academy for those writing for the industry…and they have job information.

    PS — I also agree with Melissa Sweet…following the leaders on Twitter is excellent advice.

  4. John Lewis

    My advice to any type of reporter, but especially from what I have observed in healthcare, it to remain open minded and balanced. If you presume, for example, that all pharmaceutical companies and health insurers are evil, and that all academic researchers are saints, you will be doing a serious disservice to your readers. You should employ a healthy skepticism but not a knee jerk negative reaction to anything “industry” tells you. Many PR people want to be helpful so evaluate information and data on its own merits, don’t discount simply because of the source.

  5. Joyce Frieden

    I would urge beginning health care reporters to consider applying to the health care trade press in addition to general media outlets; it can be a little easier to break in that way, and they do great work! And yes, there are actual jobs out there, although they may be a little harder to find in the current economic climate.

  6. Charlie Ornstein

    I started covering health care by chance. I was a reporter at the Dallas Morning News covering the suburbs of Garland and Mesquite. Two jobs opened up, one covering suburban police, the other covering health care on the business desk. I asked my mentor for advice. Given my goal of working in Washington, D.C., one day, he said that I should do the health care job. It was the best career advice I have ever received.
    Fourteen years later, I encourage reporters to seek out the health care beat. I’ve heard time and again that when health jobs are posted, there’s a dearth of internal applicants because reporters are fearful of covering such a complicated beat. This leaves an opening for reporters who are willing to learn policy, business, quality, politics, etc. Mastering the health beat can prepare a reporter for tackling any other beat.
    As for how to prepare, I’d agree with other commenters about reading health blogs and tweets. AHCJ’s website, http://www.healthjournalism.org, and our blog offer stories of interest and tip sheets. If you are a journalist, join us. Subscribe to our listserv, attend our national conference.
    While the job market isn’t great, it’s certainly a lot better than it once was. Check the jobs AHCJ has advertised on its site. Be willing to work for smaller sites, like Patch.
    Feel free to email those of us on AHCJ’s board for advice. We love this topic and support good coverage of it.

  7. Gina Pera

    May I second the comment of John Lewis:

    “If you presume, for example, that all pharmaceutical companies and health insurers are evil, and that all academic researchers are saints, you will be doing a serious disservice to your readers. You should employ a healthy skepticism but not a knee jerk negative reaction to anything “industry” tells you.”

    That plus avoiding the “discipline bias” inherent to so many specialties these days will get you a long way towards best serving your reading public.

    By “discipline bias,” I mean that if you talk to a sleep expert about sleep apnea, you’ll get one story. If you talk to a neuroscientist, you might get another story.

    Science and healthcare has become increasingly specialized, and narrow specialties mean that the big picture is often missed and no cross-disciplinary connections are made. That’s where journalists can shine: in making connections.

    My training as a journalist (at University of Tennessee-Knoxville, 1978) been an enormous aid in navigating discipline bias by knowing how to vet studies, ask questions, remain skeptical, and, above all, remembering my audience.

    Gina Pera

  8. Phil Galewitz

    A long time ago when I was a ….never mind. I think today’s journalism field is so vastly different from 10 or 20 years ago that there’s little to learn trying to mimic how somone got started in the 1980s or 1990s. Having said that, one thing that hasn’t changed is the need for experience writing and reporting. The best advice is just to do it– write for any publication or web site that you can. An internal newsletter, a trade journal, a flegling web site. Just write. You will only get better with more experiece and more clips the more you get noticed. Of course, to be a good writer another thing you have to do is READ. If you want to be a health journalist, read health newsletters, magazines, web sites, and your favorite newspaper and online health journalists voraciously. This will show you what stories can look like and offer ideas on what you should write about.

    Good luck.

  9. Matt Mikus

    I currently work at a small weekly with a very small hospital. One day my editor asked me to do a story regarding some of the challenges facing the new hospital. I sat down with the CEO of the hospital, and we talked about things that were way over my head.

    I put together a decent story, then found out about a rural fellowship for AHCJ, so I applied. Someone picked me out of the pile (thank you whoever that was) and I got a chance to go to Philly to attend the conference.

    I would suggest for people following my path to not be afraid of how complicated healthcare can be. When I wrote my first story, I probably told my interviewee “I don’t understand” more times than I’m willing to admit. If you know that you’re serious about it, then joining AHCJ is definitely worth your time and money. Members are very helpful, and I can attest to Charlie Ornstein comment about emailing board members. I’ve asked for advice from him before, and he was very helpful.

  10. Gary Schwitzer

    Editorial judgment and critical thinking are penultimate skills/tools.

    Question the conventional wisdom.

    Learn from the 1,600 stories we’ve reviewed on HealthNewsReview.org.

    Look at the 5-star stories and learn from them:

    http://www.healthnewsreview.org/search-results.html?search_phrase=&news_organization=&date_start=2006-01-01&date_end=2011-08-25&stars=5&x=220&y=20

    Dare to be different. Set yourself apart by questioning everything from everyone. On health care topics, if your mother tells you something, check it with at least two other independent sources.

    Demand evidence.

    Demand explanations. Question methodology.

    Make them explain absolute risk reduction. Make them explain number needed to treat or number needed to screen or number needed to harm!

    Cover costs: More than 70% of stories we review fail to do this adequately.

    Think about the 17% of the population who lack health insurance when you write your stories.

    Spend more time covering issues of access, evidence, costs, comparative effectiveness than you do covering cures and scares.

    Do these things and you will have a niche that will have value well into the future.

    Gary Schwitzer
    Publisher
    HealthNewsReview.org

  11. Ronni Sandroff

    My first job was at a medical school as a writer on a research grant. Audience: post-PhDs. Lessons learned about analyzing study methodology and flaws have been valuable ever since. But oh my clips were so technical that they crossed the eyes of editors, so I did some freelance for titles such as Cosmopolitan, and used those clips to land a job at RN magazine.

    Agree with Joyce Frieden on usefulness of starting at publications for health professionals. It takes some effort to segue out of them into the consumer press – but I often favor freelancers and job applicants who have a technical background of some sort and are not afraid of the hard issues, like explaining health insurance or tumorigenesis.

  12. Rose Hoban

    I kind of have an unfair advantage because of being a nurse – which makes me naturally skeptical when a doctor says s/he is an expert!!! But seriously, I’m sure I have a leg up on the science.

    I’ve been asked this question dozens of times and one thing I always tell people is, if they can, take a stats course!!! In health and science, we get bombarded by numbers so often, we need to be able to 1) understand them and 2) see through them, and know what looks like a weird number when it pops up.

    I also tell folks that an epidemiology course is useful too… but to really get the epi, it’s helpful to have the stats!!

    A course in finance is useful too. But that should be a requirement for all reporters!!

    Of all the courses I took in grad school, I find I refer back to stats almost daily, and my old health care finance textbook is always within reach.

  13. Rose Hoban

    I’d also like to point out one thing that’s embedded in Charlie’s post: get yourself a mentor.

    AHCJ has recently revived it’s mentorship program, so, they’re easier to find than ever.

  14. Kate Benson

    There is so much good advice here so rather than repeat it I’ll try to add on. Although for nonjournalists I would say first make sure you have a solid grounding in journalism and the protocols and principles of journalism.

    Never forget that health and diseases are about people. Statistics are definitely a must, but every number in the end represents a person – a life. The New York Times for example has a Voices section giving a public voice to the primary stakeholders in a number of diseases – the patients. Patients are always the expert on their own experience. Such work can’t and shouldn’t take the place of health policy stories, but they can complement them, because our readers are humans too.

    Although a background in public health is good, health journalists should also be knowledgable about medical disciplines as well as how they interact – or at least know how to find sources who are knowledgeable.

    Although podiatry is probably not at the top of the list, for example covering the H1N1 flu pandemic accurately required knowledge of virology in addition to other disciplines such as immunology. Sometimes if you aren’t knowledgable enough about the details of the big picture you can easily miss the errors.

    Always expand your rolodex – don’t limit yourself to the same two sources everyone else is using. And please, please use attribution. The fields of health and medicine are constantly changing and repeating old mantras may reinforce information that may no longer be accurate. Always ask yourself “How do I know this?” And “Will all experts in the area I am writing about agree with this statement?” You don’t know if you aren’t asking.

    Finally, learn to navigate databases such as PubMed and always read the entire study – the abstract may or may not be accurate. And if chi square makes your eyes glaze over, skip to the discussion section and use it as a springboard for questions about evidence, methods, and conclusions.

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