FCC report on journalism reveals failures, unique potential of the health beat

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.

An FCC working group led by Steven Waldman (formerly of U.S. News & World Report and Beliefnet.com, among other things) has unleashed its behemoth report on American journalism, titled “The Information Needs of Communities: The changing media landscape in a broadband age.”

The full report runs 365 pages (475 if you count footnotes) and addresses the current failures and future path of journalism in these United States. If you don’t have a few hundred hours to spare, you can get the highlights from the executive summary.

While the authors do refer to health journalism throughout the work, they specifically address the beat on pages 49 and 50, where they quote from the 2009 Kaiser Family Foundation report “The State of Health Journalism in the U.S., ” (PDF) which was partially based on a survey of AHCJ members.

The report dwells on the health care stories that go unreported due to lack of resources, though it does cite one bright spot, namely Kaiser Health News and all the local health-focused nonprofit outlets that have sprung up in recent years.

As regular readers might expect and Gary Schwitzer, author of the 2009 report, addresses in depth on his blog, local television health news was singled out for special criticism, both for its lack of focus on truly local stories and the increasing reliance on pay-for-play or similarly fishy arrangements with local medical outlets, like when “a hospital in Ohio paid local TV stations $100,000 or more to air ‘medical breakthrough’ segments that benefited the hospital.”

Pay-for-play arrangements with the health care industry have prompted an outcry from journalists in the field. The Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society for Professional Journalists issued a joint statement urging local broadcast stations to avoid arrangements that improperly influence health coverage. The statement said that even if such deals are disclosed, handing over editorial decision making to hospitals violates the principles of ethical journalism and betrays the public trust.

At the same time, health news remains important to advertisers. As the report’s authors write, “Certain topics are so attractive to advertisers that websites that focus on them can fetch even higher rates. This is especially true for health and financial content, which is why a disproportionate number of the successful content websites have been in those sectors (e.g., WebMD, Everyday Health, CBS MarketWatch, the Motley Fool).”

Other random health-related tidbits:

  • A shout-out to Florida’s Healthy State Collaborative Local Journalism Center, which “recently launched a website to promote its mission of “super serv[ing] the residents of [the] region with an intense journalistic commitment to the unifying topic of health care.”
  • A survey found that, when it comes to use of shared library computers, health information (37 percent) trailed only education (42 percent) and employment (40 percent). It’s an odd factoid, but health information consumption patterns always intrigue me.
  • Speaking of which, “In a Pew Internet Project survey of residents of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Macon, Georgia; and San Jose, California, 62 percent said that they were very confident that they could find local information about medical and health problems. But only 24 percent said they were very confident that they could find information to ‘assess [whether] local politicians were doing their jobs.'”

The report also offers a more general take on the possible future of journalism in this country, one which doesn’t leave much room for the public sector. According to CJR’s Joel Meares, when it comes to correcting the issues facing the industry, “the theme seems to be to hold a steady course, loosen up the system, put a lot of information online, and hope foundations are willing to do some hard work.” Alongside that assessment, Meares also offers a functional summary of the concrete ideas contained in the report. He also offers a reaction roundup, as well as a quick sidebar on public broadcasting.

Over at ReportingOnHealth.org, Barbara Feder Ostrov gives a personal testament to the trend of laying off health reporters and not replacing them. As she says, “the health beat is simply added to the daily responsibilities of other reporters who may be covering education, science, the environment or local government.”

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