Balancing readers’ desire for short articles with need for meaningful analysis

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.

Writing for Prepared Patient Forum, Jessie Gruman uses the demise of the News of the World to explore the commodification of health journalism, particularly in the online realm, as exemplified by Murdoch’s defunct populist publication and others devoted to a Huffingtonesque metric maximization.

In the health domain, the effects of these demands were described in a series of conversations the Center for Advancing Health hosted with health care journalists over the past month. The themes that emerged were that journalists are often encouraged to:

  • Avoid ambiguity. Write short, definite pieces. Don’t qualify the findings or describe limitations of studies. Stay away from “We don’t know what works” and “More research is needed.”
  • Make things simple. Present “The Top Five Things You Need to Know (or Do) About X.”
  • Write to get clicks. “We are successful based on how many people open our articles.” “I write articles based on questions readers submit.”

Gruman writes that while these observations are neither groundbreaking nor inherently evil, they are problematic. She frames the discussion as one between what readers want (as shown through what links they click) versus what they need. And while readers may crave brief, declarative articles with immediate and alarming personal ramifications, every health journalist understands that what they actually need is well-reasoned, long-term analysis that embraces the ambiguity inherent in day-to-day health research.

With that in mind, Gruman ends on a hopeful note, observing that quality journalism is still readily available, and pointing journalists to a few handy examples and resources. All hyperlinks are taken directly from the original text.

It is still possible to find thoughtful and lengthy discussions of evidence on specific questions in mainstream publications. The lively Association of Health Care Journalists provides a range of services and activities to uphold the quality of reporting. Gary Schwitzer and his cadre of fellow critics at HealthNewsReview.com [sic] publicly ding the most egregious laggards. And there is considerable interest among journalists in improving, not weakening, the quality of their health care coverage.

(Please note that Schwitzer’s site is HealthNewsReview.org.)

1 thought on “Balancing readers’ desire for short articles with need for meaningful analysis

  1. Shawn Kennedy

    Great post on a problem that’s worsening, in my view. “And while readers may crave brief, declarative articles with immediate and alarming personal ramifications, every health journalist understands that what they actually need is well-reasoned, long-term analysis that embraces the ambiguity inherent in day-to-day health research.”

    Is the future the “quick take” in print and the in-depth on the iPad or kindle?

Leave a Reply