Top editors offered great advice for journalists interested in freelancing for health trade publications during a panel at Health Journalism 2015.
Trade publications for professionals working in health and medicine provide numerous freelance opportunities for journalists, but the work – while rewarding – is different than writing for a consumer audience, panelists said.
Writing for a professional audience requires a familiarity with the lingo and an understanding of the larger context of developments in a particular field, such as oncology or health information technology.
Here are some of the tips offered by the panelists, who included Daniel Keller, president, Keller Broadcasting; Peggy Peck, vice president/editor-in-chief, MedPageToday; Rabiya Tuma, assignment editor, Medscape Medical News; and panel moderator Robert Finn, executive editor, MS Discovery Forum. The panel’s helpful tipsheet also provides a list of medical trade publications and contact information for the panelists and moderator.
- Know your audience. Successful freelancers know how to “get inside the minds” of the publication’s audience, anticipating what that audience wants and needs to know to better do their jobs, said.
- Know what you don’t know. Good trade reporters know when they’re not as familiar as they should be with a topic and keep asking sources questions until their understanding is firm. “Phrase it back to the researcher” to make sure that you can communicate the topic clearly, Peck advised.
- Know how to deeply read a medical study. You’ve got to be able to read a paper, talk to a doctor and understand what a randomized controlled trial is versus an observational trial, and what that means for how you can interpret the data,” Tuma said. Keller suggested that journalists can learn more about how clinical research is conducted by reviewing the book How To Read a Paper. AHCJ members can find more resources Medical Studies core topic [Editor’s note: AHCJ members can download “Covering Medical Research.”] Also critical: hone in quickly on the limitations of the study.
- Go to medical conferences as often as you can. Going to medical meetings is key to “figuring out the ethos of the field, how to write for (professionals in that field) and figuring out what they want to know,” Keller said. “You don’t have to know everything, you just have to know enough to explain it.” An AHCJ or NASW membership may help you get media credentials for the conference if you’re covering it “on spec,” without a specific assignment from a trade editor.
- Be prepared. Reading the actual study – not just the abstract or news release – and being familiar with a researcher’s work can go a long way in establishing your credibility, panelists advised. Researchers are more likely to remember you, Tuma noted.
- Pick a beat. Consider specializing in one area of medicine or health care. Some freelancers specialize in oncology, others in pharmaceuticals, still others in health information technology.