Category Archives: Health journalism

One of the most important questions I ask during interviews 

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo by Karen Elliott Edelson via Flickr.

When you’ve been a journalist for years, you develop rote patterns for many of your reporting activities — sites you always visit, online searches you always conduct (hopefully including background searches on sources), and questions you always ask during interviews. Interviews have long been my favorite aspect of reporting.

I’ve developed a long list of questions that guide me when I’m preparing for my next interview. But one question appears on every single list of prepared questions no matter who I’m talking to or what topic I’m covering: Is there anything else I should have asked you but didn’t that you want to address?

I can’t add up the number of times this question has been utterly crucial to my reporting. One instance completely changed my line of reporting and where I pitched the story, it was during an interview with a CDC official about a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which are usually as dry as it gets. (It’s difficult to get them to answer anything that’s not already printed in the study.) When I asked that question at the end of the interview, the answer extended the interview another 15 minutes. The source pointed out a racial disparity in care that I had overlooked, leading me to make that fact the central angle of my story and heavily influencing who my outside experts were.

Other times, this question has led to other interviews (I also always ask who else they recommend I speak to), sudden epiphanies about the story I’m working on, the perfect kicker quote or lead, the final piece I needed to click into place for a nut graf, tips that become follow-up stories, tips that become stories on completely different topics altogether, and even just a collegial, informal follow-up conversation that cements a new relationship with a potentially helpful ongoing source.

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Becerra needs to open up to the press

About Joyce Frieden

Joyce Frieden is a member of AHCJ's board of directors and oversees MedPage Today's coverage of Washington and health policy.

Letter to Xavier Becerra

AHCJ is calling on Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to make himself available for questioning by reporters.

In a letter to Becerra sent Friday, the association urges regular, open press briefings similar to those held by his predecessor.

In his seven months in office, the leader of one of the largest federal departments has kept a low profile, even though the agencies he oversees, which include the CDC, the FDA, the NIH, and Medicare, make decisions affecting the lives of virtually all Americans.

“It’s time for Secretary Becerra to come out of hiding,” said AHCJ President Felice J. Freyer, who signed the letter along with fellow board members Sabriya Rice and Joyce Frieden. “The public deserves to hear from the cabinet member responsible for the programs and policies that affect our health.”

Although Becerra holds press conferences on limited topics when he travels, they are not live-streamed or open to reporters outside of the regions he visits. And he has yet to hold an open-ended press conference, at which reporters can ask him about a variety of topics.

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Tracking the Senate confirmation process for next FDA chief

About Kerry Dooley Young

Kerry Dooley Young (@kdooleyyoung) is AHCJ's core topic leader on patient safety. She has written extensively about the Food and Drug Administration, medical research, health policy and quality measurements. Her work has appeared in Medscape Medical News, Congressional Quarterly/CQ Roll Call and Bloomberg News.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Senate’s vetting of a proposed Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner may provide an opportunity for reporters to dig into some of the most pressing concerns in U.S. health policy, including the opioid epidemic and the standards used to clear new medical treatments for the market.

President Joe Biden on Nov. 12 announced his plan to nominate Robert Califf as FDA commissioner. Califf served in this same post in the final months of the Obama administration, from February 2016 to January 2017 (Learn everything you need to know about Califf in this blog post.) The next step will be a hearing on the nomination before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The committee expects to receive a formal nomination for Califf this week and will schedule a hearing “as soon as possible,” a HELP aide told AHCJ.

Califf likely will face questions during his next round of Senate vetting on some of the same topics he faced on the first round, including FDA’s decisions on food safety and the pace at which it approves generic drugs. Senators will likely ask him to weigh in on controversies that have emerged since, particularly the FDA’s approval of Biogen’s Aduhelm drug for Alzheimer’s disease. (The AHCJ has covered this issue in June and July blogs.)

If confirmed, Califf would also lead the FDA during the next big push in Congress to change how the agency handles drug approvals in general.

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Study highlights significance of representation in medical school: Why this research matters to reporters

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo by the University of Nottingham via Flickr.

Throughout my reporting of the pandemic, I’ve made an explicit effort to interview many more women than men, especially women of color. I’ve done that because the popular perception of a “doctor” remains a white male, and I believe that one way I can contribute to changing that mindset is to be more inclusive about who I show doing a job.

That’s why a new research letter in JAMA Surgery on representation in medical school faculty caught my eye. In short, it found low diversity overall among surgery faculty and residents and revealed that having more underrepresented minorities among the faculty was correlated with more students from those groups. Neither of those findings is necessarily surprising, but they have two major implications for journalists reporting on a study that requires an expert source in surgery:

  • Reporters likely need to work a little harder to find more diverse sources when reporting on surgery research since senior faculty in that field isn’t particularly diverse.
  • You must find diverse sources because representation matters. If more faculty from underrepresented groups correlated with more students from those groups, it’s possible that including more diverse sources in your stories will make a difference in who reads your stories and what your readers take away from them. It will also allow you to present perspectives you might not have gotten if you had relied on too many sources who look alike.

Study methodology and key findings

Researchers used data from the American Association of Medical Colleges to assess the race, ethnicity, and sex of medical students and full-time surgical faculty members. (Note: Although the study states that it assessed the sex of faculty members, it seems more likely they were assessing gender, a common conflation that occurs in research.) One interesting aspect of this study is that investigators look specifically at “underrepresented” groups as opposed to “minority” groups. The difference is significant given that certain minority groups are overrepresented in medical subspecialties.

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Journalism organizations that offer training, networking, industry news and more—recommendations from AHCJ members

About Barbara Mantel

Barbara Mantel (@BJMantel), an independent journalist, is AHCJ’s freelance community correspondent. Her work has appeared in CQ Researcher, Rural Health Quarterly, Undark, Healthline, NBCNews.com and NPR, among others. She helps members find the resources they need to succeed as freelancers and welcomes your suggestions.

Photo by GotCredit via Flickr

AHCJ is my favorite journalism association. I have made many friends networking at the annual conferences, found editors through PitchFest, obtained access to expensive journals, and discovered a variety of valuable resources on the website.

I also belong to other journalism organizations to supplement what AHCJ offers. I regularly visit websites such as the Poynter Institute and the National Press Club Journalism Institute for expert panels or tip sheets that would help me grow my business or improve as a journalist.

After asking other core topic leaders and members of AHCJ’s freelance committee for suggestions and doing my own research, I’ve compiled a list of links to organizations that I encourage all AHCJ members to check out. The list can be found at the Freelance Center’s Running a Business tab under the Networking and branding heading.

Freelance medical writer and editor Erin Boyle, a member of AHCJ’s freelance committee, recommends the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). “AMWA has been a great resource for me, particularly as an independent journalist, in providing me with the nuts and bolts of setting up my freelance business from sessions at its regional and national conferences,” Boyle said.

“It’s also a great organization to meet and network with a diverse group of medical writers and receive more education about the medical writing side of things,” Boyle added.

Fellow freelance committee member and independent journalist Katja Ridderbusch praises the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). “ICFJ has plenty of international fellowships, grants and educational opportunities, from webinars to conferences, and for journalists interested in international reporting or just tapping into an international network of journalists, this is a great organization to connect with,” Ridderbusch said.

Ridderbusch, who is originally from Germany, received an international reporting fellowship 20 years ago through ICFJ that brought her to the United States for three months. It was an “amazing experience that really opened my horizon, made me a better reporter and, literally, changed the course of my life,” she recalled. “I probably wouldn’t have immigrated to the U.S. without the experience.”

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