Diversifying your sources can improve your reporting

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

It’s an easy trap to fall into: call the hospital public relations department and ask to speak with an authority about your topic. Chances are good you will end up interviewing an older, typically white, male doctor.

And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, if you’re only talking to one group of experts, you’re missing out on vital sources which can add rich, diverse perspectives to your stories, according to the journalists who participated in the “Finding diverse sources for your story” panel at Health Journalism 2019. Besides, diversity is just good journalism.

Not relying on the “typical” types of sources means your stories include more diverse patient stories as well, because the lenses change, according to Atlanta-based independent journalist Sonya Collins. And that benefits your readers, listeners, and viewers. When Collins began writing articles about primary care, she learned about the roles of different clinicians, nurse practitioners and pharmacists; that led her to begin incorporating these perspectives into her interviews. “I got very different patient stories,” the told the audience. “The M.D. wasn’t necessarily the one who always treated patients – so I got in touch with who actually did hands-on care.”

Think a little outside the box, she advised. “I recommend educating yourself on what non-physician clinicians do. Nurses, pharmacists, PAs, also specialize.” Just about every specialty has a professional organization or association, like those for emergency department nurses or dermatology nurses. You just have to look for them.

“The opinions or perspectives and lens they respond through provides a richer diversity of perspectives and will engage readers more,” Collins said.

Sometimes, that’s easier said than done. When reporting a story about electric scooters, Collins said she tried reaching out to an emergency nurses association, but found no media contact information on their website. The only way to get in touch was to fill out a generic form. Someone did call her back but wanted to know “why us?”

It’s one of the catch-22s about this effort, according to Barbara Glickstein, R.N., a public health nurse and producer of the HealthCetera podcast. Nurses don’t always feel comfortable or confident about dealing with the media, so remain vastly underrepresented as expert sources in general media coverage.

”Biases about women, nurses, and other clinical professionals in positions of authority exist in, newsrooms, and among public relations staff in health care organizations and universities. That impede journalists’ use of diverse sources in health reporting,” she said.

Glickstein discussed results of the 2018 Woodhull 2 study, which analyzed how often nurses were cited in mainstream health news media. The study replicated one conducted in 1998, named after Nancy Woodhull, the founding editor of USA Today. Back then, “nurses were identified as sources in only 4% of quotes or other sourcing in health news stories in leading print national and regional newspapers and 1% in weeklies and industry publications, Glickstein said.

“Sadly, not much has changed in 20 years,” she said. Statistically, the numbers remain about the same, according to the later analysis.

Independent journalist Katti Gray pointed out a lack of diversity across the board in health care, from clinical trials to newsroom leadership. With layoffs and changes happening in newsrooms all over the U.S., Gray said the need for diversity is greater than ever. Otherwise. “It becomes a way of ‘othering’ people.”

Rather than going to physicians first, she approaches grassroots organizations to answer important questions like whether an incarcerated person has a re-entry plan. Then she backtracks to those who have more extensive contact with a subject than a physician might have.

Gray, who splits her time between New York City and Arkansas; said she finds a noticeable difference in source diversity depending on whether the reporter is also a person of color and where they live “If you’re not a person of color, if you’ve haven’t lived in the South, the challenge of using diversifying sources becomes even more apparent,” she said. “Make the effort. How much work are you willing to put into it?”

Sometimes, it’s not for lack of trying, Glickstein said. In one case that resonated, a journalist wanted to quote a clinical nurse specialist, for an interventional cardiology story, but the department chair insisted only his comments be used in the article.

Even on tight deadlines, journalists must be persistent and ask for who they need. Nursing, physician assistant, therapy and other groups must better understand the needs of the media and become more responsive. After good-faith efforts, “if there’s no diversity in your story,” said Collins, “maybe that’s what your story is.”

Panelists offered several suggestions for journalist seeking to diversify sources:

  • Take time to find sources that better represent and engage your readers
  • Bring together diverse sources for all your topics, not only for “diversity” topics.
  • The same goes for women physicians, nurses, or other professionals — Don’t bring in sources only when you’re doing specific gender/racial story – e.g., women doctors for women’s health stories.
  • Check your questions for bias, both racial and professional
  • Look for resources in universities, especially places like historically black colleges and universities, such as Morehouse School of Medicine or Howard University College of Medicine
  • Reach out to a Federally Qualified Health Center — it will automatically add a different perspective
  • For every profession out there there’s an association — reach out to them. The American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine lists all minority physician organizations
  • Ask your sources where they practice, about their patient demographics, the kind of research they do. Let your reporting drive that.
  • Find a local entry; such as churches or other religious institutions, non-profit organizations to tap in to community thought leaders, patients, or respected, non-M.D. health professionals. This is especially helpful in communities of color and rural communities, where experience interacting with media may be more limited.

Remember, building trust with new sources takes time. Be patient and keep trying.

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