Aussie researchers find value in health reporters

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

In Croakey, Melissa Sweet explains a new study about coverage of avian flu by Australian media and how it demonstrates the benefits of using specialized beat reporters to cover health stories. The study approaches the coverage from a public health communication angle, and addresses head-on concerns that the media has been a menace to public health with its reckless disregard for actual evidence.

Among other things, it notes that reporters seem to be genuinely dedicated to honest and effective reporting, which often puts them at loggerheads with editors and producers, groups which must be cognizant of what the report euphemistically calls “economic and structural imperatives.”

See Sweet’s post for more details but here are some of the highlights:

  • 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.
  • 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.”

Croakey is, of course, the health blog of Crikey, an Australian online magazine based in Melbourne.

In another study of health journalism, just published in PLoS Medicine, researchers found that stories written by health journalists were “superior to those written by other groups.” This study also looked at stories from news organizations in Australia.

The researches point out that, given economic considerations, editors might be tempted to use stories from wire services, foreign media outlets or other news organizations for their health coverage, however, they caution that editors should choose carefully because AP achieved fairly high and consistent ratings, whereas AFP had significantly lower average scores.

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