Survey unmasks health, medical journalists

A new study attempts to answer two key questions about health and medical journalists in the United States – what is their general profile and, at a theoretical level, what occupational practices and factors influence the scope and type of coverage of health topics seen in the United States? The researchers, who were funded by the National Cancer Institute, surveyed 468 reporters and editors representing 463 local and national broadcast and print media outlets.

Faces of health journalists: Journalists attend a panel at Health Journalism 2007 in Los Angeles.

Faces of health journalists: Journalists attend a panel at Health Journalism 2007 in Los Angeles.

For those of you who attended Health Journalism 2006 in Houston, this might sound familiar; the lead author, K. “Vish” Viswanath, presented early findings at that conference.

So who are we? The study, published in the Journal of Health Communication, found that almost 70 percent had at least a bachelor’s degree; 19 percent have a master’s degree; 4.5 percent have a doctorate, including about 3 percent with an MD. Almost half of the respondents graduated with a degree in journalism and 13 percent with a degree in communications. Eight percent reported they were life sciences majors in college.

Other revealing facts: Minorities are severely underrepresented among those reporting on health and medical science in the United States. Almost 97 percent identified themselves as non-Hispanic and about 93 percent as white. Sixty-seven percent of the respondents were women. The average age of those surveyed was 44 and more than one-third had been working as journalists for more than 20 years, although not necessarily covering health the entire time.

Overall, initial story ideas come from a news source – and health care providers were the most relied upon source, especially among local reporters; while national reporters more often turned to researcher and scientists. Sources were followed by press conferences or press releases. When it comes to deciding newsworthiness, the “potential for public impact” and “new information or development” were cited nearly across the board, followed by “ability to provide a human angle” and “ability to provide a local angle.”

However, there were some significant differences seen between print and broadcast outlets. Journalists from broadcast media rely on story suggestions by sources (62.8 percent) or wire services (50 percent) more often than print reporters (47.9 percent and 37. percent, respectively). Print journalists have a more diverse range of ideas to initiate stories – while they rely on human sources, broadcast journalists were significantly more likely to report using scientific journals for their initial ideas (46 percent and 25 percent, respectively). Print journalists also rely more on government Web site.

Update: We heard from Viswanath, the study’s lead author. He summarized the findings:

The take away messages are three:

  1. Journalists work closely with sources to identify and develop health and  medicine stories. It is therefore important for sources to work with reporters and be sensitive to their needs.
  2. Only a small percentage of journalists  have majored in science in their undergrad programs
  3. Journalists desire training and appropriate tools to help them cover the stories better.

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