How I did it

Learn from these journalists how they have covered various aspects of medical studies and research. They provide valuable tips and sources and explain how they got past the challenges to explain these complex topics to their audiences.

A question about alcohol deaths in New Mexico became a multi-part investigation

Ted Alcorn

November 2022

When journalist Ted Alcorn visited an alcohol detox center in Gallup, New Mexico, he had little idea his reporting on the impact of alcohol on his state would grow into a multi-part, 21,000-words-and-growing series digging into why New Mexico residents die from drinking at much higher rates than those in other states. Alcorn’s remarkable package, Blind Drunk, was published by New Mexico In Depth in July 2022. Alcorn is an AHCJ Health Care Performance fellow and covered this story as a part of the fellowship program. 

Staff writer talks about covering COVID, responding to anti-science sentiment

Dana Smith

December 2020
Just a few months after Dana Smith became’s only staff writer on health and wellness, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, turning Smith’s plans for writing in-depth stories on health and wellness upside down. She quickly became an infectious disease specialist focused on COVID-19 and has been helping everyone understand the unfolding story this year with her deeply reported stories about testing, vaccines and how the immune system works.

Here Smith talks more about her journalism journey this year and advice for colleagues on how journalists can respond to anti-science sentiment and COVID-19 disbelievers.

In-depth, personal reporting digs deep into consumer genetic testing 

January 2020
Tina Hesman Saey won second place in the Consumer/Feature (small) category of the 2018 AHCJ Awards for Excellence in Journalism for her multi-part series on DNA testing for Science News.

Here she discusses how the story came about, her reporting process and the resources she used while working on the story.


Covering a controversial study: How to dig deep on a deadline

August 2019
From the moment Tara Haelle saw the study — and editorial and editor’s note — among JAMA’s embargoed studies, she knew it would be a doozy. Certain topics arouse controversy simply by their existence, and water fluoridation is very high on that list.

So when she was assigned to write about the JAMA Pediatrics study finding a link between prenatal fluoride exposure and reduced IQ in preschoolers, "two things went through my mind: One, this is going to be covered horribly by some outlets and likely create unnecessary anxiety among parents, especially pregnant women (who have enough to worry about when it comes to do’s and don’ts). Two, I need to be one of those who gets it right."

Here, Haelle shares how she approached, reported and completed her own article, in case seeing her process is helpful for others when there’s another potentially controversial study to cover.

Looking behind the hype — and potential — of a lifestyle approach to Alzheimer’s 

Linda Marsa

July 2019
Journalist Linda Marsa received third place honors in AHCJ’s Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism for her December 2018 story, Alzheimer’s Under Attack, published in Discover magazine.

In this How I Did It piece, she explains how she pulled the pieces together for a look at how lifestyle therapies were succeeding for many in early disease stages, while most drugs never made it out of study phase.

Putting a human face on antibiotic resistance

March 2018
Reporter Chris Dall, a reporter for CIDRAP News, wrote “To Save a Life, Doctors Turn to Bacteria-Killing Viruses,” which won third place in the 2017 AHCJ Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism. (CIDRAP is the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.)

The story vividly illustrates a potential new avenue for treating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Here, Dall explains more about how he wrote the story.

Vox reporter describes deep dive into medical studies on back pain

December 2017
Nearly all people experience back pain at some point, and it’s the second most common disability in the U.S., costing an estimated $90 billion annually. It’s also the kind of chronic pain that can lead to long-term opioid use, which has exploded in the epidemic Americans read about daily in health news. But does long-term opioid use even help back pain? What about chiropractic care? Or yoga?

Vox reporter Julia Belluz took a dive into the evidence to find out what actually causes it and what can — and can’t — treat it. In this Q&A, she describes how she approached and executed the Show Me the Evidence piece on back pain.

Taking on a story about autism that no one wanted

September 2017
Apoorva Mandavilli won First Place in the Consumer/Feature (small) category of the 2016 AHCJ Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism.

Here, she discusses how she came up with the idea for her story, “How ‘shock therapy’ is saving some children with autism,” how she researched and reported it, what her biggest challenges were, and offers advice for other journalists.

Reporting all the angles on organ transplants and improving their odds

David Wahlberg

September 2016
After two insurance companies stopped referring patients to the University of Wisconsin Hospital’s kidney transplant program several years ago because of its lower-than-expected success rates, David Wahlberg learned there is much more to organ transplants than feature stories on joyful recipients.

He explored transplant policy last year through an AHCJ Reporting Fellowship on Health Care Performance, initially planning to focus on the increasing attention to success rates by private insurers and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

But, while one of his stories touched on that, his research revealed other issues, which he organized into three main themes in a nine-part series for the Wisconsin State Journal.

Rush to Robotic Surgery Outpaces Medical Evidence, Critics Say

Richard Mark Kirkner

March 2016
I was flipping through AARP The Magazine — yeah, I’m of that age — in January 2014 when I came across a small news item on robotic surgery. I can’t even remember whether it was favorable or negative, but it piqued my curiosity because I had some background with robotic surgery. I had been editor of a trade magazine for general surgeons back in 2003, when the first surgical robots began appearing in hospitals. I had a close-up view of robotic surgery growing from novelty to standard of care.

After I saw the item, I went to PubMed and found a few studies that reported varied results with robotic surgery, particularly with its growing use in gynecology. I also was aware, from my aforementioned days with the surgeon magazine, that robotic operations cost more than conventional surgery and required quite a learning curve for the surgeon and operating room staff.

Reporting on facial reconstructive surgery offers window into how war spurs innovation

Liza Gross

February 2016
A 2014 medical piece for Discover on soldiers’ facial reconstruction came about in an indirect and unexpected fashion. The original inspiration came from a character in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” who had lost much of his face in WWI and wore a mask to conceal his injuries. 

Journalist Liza Gross wrote a short essay about the trauma associated with disfiguring facial injuries. She writes that she didn’t think too much more about it until a press conference at an American Association for the Advancement of Science conference on facial reconstruction. She decided to learn more about the state of research on facial repair. Here she shares what she learned about the field, how she reported on it and how war spurs innovations in medicine.

Batea initiative hopes to help improve Wikipedia health content

Fred Trotter

December 2015
It's well known that Google, Facebook and dozens of other companies mine the browsing histories of their users and use that data for advertising. But imagine what we might learn if we homed in on the browsing history of medical students browsing clinical research sites during their studies? That's exactly the idea behind a new browser extension called Batea, recently released by the company DocGraph.

DocGraph is founded by Fred Trotter, an AHCJ member who has been working for years to make big data accessible and useful from the consumer side. Tara Haelle asked Trotter about Batea, which was created with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and how it might serve journalists in the future.

Award winner explains how she dug into the reasons for high U.S. drug prices

Roxanne Nelson

November 2015
No other country in the world pays as much for drugs as the United States — not even other wealthy countries such as Canada, Germany, Japan or France. Using studies, published analyses, news stories and expert interviews, journalist Roxanne Nelson dug into the reasons for the big disparities in drug pricing between the U.S. and other countries in her Medscape story “Why Are Drug Costs So High in the United States?” (registration required).

In the following Q&A, Nelson explains her reporting and writing process for the piece, which earned second place in the Trade Publications/Newsletters category of the 2014 Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism.

Using evidence, FDA reports and legal documents to explore robotic surgery’s risks and benefits

Laura Beil

July 2015
A few years ago I did a story for Men’s Health on proton beam radiation. If I learned one thing, it was that if you want to promote a new technology, sell it to men worried about bladder and sexual function after prostate surgery. So the first time I saw a billboard for robotic surgery making just those claims, I had to wonder whether I was seeing an advancement in marketing but not medicine.

Reporting on the confusion over medical tests and the consequences

Beth Daley

May 2015
A question nagged at me a year after I had finished a story about suspect Lyme disease tests: Who was in charge of making sure any diagnostic test was accurate?

There are two types of medical tests that a person might undergo: a screening and a diagnostic test. The results of screening tell a patient how likely they are to have a particular condition; screenings are about risk. A diagnostic test, however, actually diagnoses a condition.

Using data to expose the risks of home births  

Markian Hawryluk

June 2014
Markian Hawryluk, a health reporter with The Bend (Ore.) Bulletin, describes how he took advantage of new data collected by the state of Oregon to shape an article that revealed high mortality rates for home births in his state.

While beauticians and tattoo artists are regulated in the state, midwife certification is voluntary in Oregon, and even then, the hurdles for certification are rather minimal.

But with midwives largely operating outside of the established health care system, there was little more than anecdotal evidence about the safety of home births to go on. That changed last year.

"If home birth were a drug," he wrote, "it would be taken off the market."

Mixing medical evidence with a health experience

Karen D. Brown
Karen D. Brown

March 2014
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer following a routine mammogram, my first response definitely wasn’t, “I bet I can get a story out of this.”

Of course, my very first response was not something we can print on a family-friendly website.

But even after I started to gracefully (sort of) accept what I was facing, I wasn’t anxious to write about it. There is a rich literature of illness narratives, and I didn’t feel my own emotional experience was going to add much to what many excellent writers had already contributed to the canon. (See: Barbara Ehrenriech, Joyce Wadler, Peggy `Orenstein, to name just a few.) Plus, my own diagnosis – a stage 0 noninvasive cancer called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) – had an excellent prognosis, which thankfully took much of the pathos out of my story.

Bringing a medical study home to your local market

Eryn Brown

October 2013
Medical research can often seem far removed from a local health beat. All the statistics, the jargon, the complicated graphs can make it easy to forget that behind every number there's a real person. In fact, medical studies can be great jumping off points for local stories. The key is finding the people who are at the heart of the research.

We asked health reporter Eryn Brown to share how she recently turned a medical study from Yale University into a poignant local story for the Los Angeles Times. In bringing the research home, she shined a light on the heartbreaking ways low-income mothers have to stretch diapers when they can't afford a steady supply.

When the study’s not the story

Salynn Boyles
Salynn Boyles

March 2013
Writing about medical research can be a pretty straightforward task. But then there are times when a study that doesn't tell the whole story. These studies share common red flags--they're usually funded by drug or device manufacturers, they're eagerly promoted, and they typically ignore other studies with conflicting results.

Award-winning freelancer writer Salynn Boyles shows us how she spotted one such study and did the legwork to add background and balance. The end result was a story she says took more effort, but ultimately reflected told a bigger truth about one kind of weight loss surgery. Another bonus: It was more fun to write.

Deadline management for medical research news

Daniel J. DeNoon
Daniel J. DeNoon

January 2013
Deadline in a few hours? “Don’t panic” is bad advice. It’s not even possible when deadline looms and nobody has called you back. Managing that hot little ball of panic is key. Think of it as a controlled nuclear reaction from which you can draw energy.

Award-winning health reporter Daniel J. DeNoon shares his straightforward strategy for reporting and writing a news story about a journal article while on deadline.

He has tips on what parts of the study to read first, how to find experts to comment, how many people to interview and how to convey the importance of your deadline to your sources.

Debates over screening, comparative effectiveness research lead to compelling reporting

April 2012
Pulitzer Prize-winner Rochelle Sharp explains how she discovered that 40 percent of Medicare spending on screening went for tests the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force doesn’t consider medically necessary.

Uncovering conflicts of interest in medicine, research

March 2010
This eye-opening story from Jon Fauber, medical reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, explains how he discovered the shadowy world of financial conflicts of interest in medical research.