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Tip sheets

Journalists and experts have written about covering medical studies and presented discussions on the topic at AHCJ conferences and workshops. This is a collection of the most useful and relevant tips. Click the title of the tip sheet that interests you and you will be asked to login because these are available exclusively to AHCJ members.

Featured tip sheet

Roadmap to evaluating think tank research

October 2017
Not all medical and health research comes from peer-reviewed medical studies. Reports from think tanks can contribute to chasing down a story as well. But relying on research from think tanks requires some homework to ensure a full understanding of the think tank’s objectives, biases, history, funding and other characteristics which could influence their findings. This tip sheet from Journalists’ Resources provides a good starting point for doing due diligence.

Look for additional tip sheets based on subject:

Drug costs

Journal/information access

Social media and medical studies

Resources and strategies for reporters

Scientific language

Suicide

Understanding research

Drug costs

Finding the costs of drugs and treatments

April 2012
The runaway cost of drugs, tests, and treatments is arguably one of the most important issues in medicine, but it’s one that’s often missing from health stories. This tip sheet offers some ideas and resources for finding information on costs.

Journal/information access

AHCJ announces greatly discounted LexisNexis access 

October 2017
AHCJ is excited to announce an offer for significantly discounted access to LexisNexis for association members. The offer, made possible in partnership with the Contently Foundation, a nonprofit organization for investigative reporting, will be of particular interest to AHCJ’s freelance members.

LexisNexis is a vital resource for all types of journalists and writers, but it's particularly valuable for those covering health care in that it contains some 250 industry publications, including the American Journal of Law & Medicine, The American Journal of Surgery, The Lancet, Biotech Business, Modern Healthcare and Occupational Health.

Assessing a journal's quality can help assess a study's newsworthiness

February 2016
You run across a fascinating study that seems newsworthy – but it’s published in a medical journal you’ve never heard of. How do you make sure it’s a legitimate, reasonably high-quality publication?

Often some of the most interesting findings can come from a smaller journal, especially in an emerging area of science that isn’t widely studied or accepted, yet remains scientifically sound.

You want to watch out for predatory journals, those that charge scientists to publish their work without adequate quality controls, and those that are just low in quality or affiliated with an advocacy organization.

So, how do you vet a journal before moving forward on reporting a study published in it? Here are some guidelines on performing due diligence on the journal’s quality.

Have you earned your PubMed black belt?

January 2016
It’s just about impossible to report on medical research without becoming intimately familiar with PubMed. But just because a reporter uses the database site doesn’t mean they’re getting the most out of it.

At her Absolutely Maybe blog (hosted at science- and medicine-centric PLOS Blogs) Hilda Bastian explains 9 PubMed Ninja Skills that will help reporters, researchers and anyone else get the most out of the site. About half of her suggestions require an account at PubMed, but these are free and quick to set up. She opens with some great links to the sources that PubMed draws from and then moves into expert searching skills, such as using filters, quotation marks and Boolean operators.

How to access health journals and news services

Are you making full use of your AHCJ member benefits? Independent journalist Maia Szalavitz explains how to get free access to resources including UpToDate.com and The Cochrane Library.

Using the Drug Industry Document Archive for your reporting

The Drug Industry Document Archive is a publically accessible website hosted by the University of California, San Francisco Library and Center for Knowledge Management that contains previously secret documents from major drug companies such as Merck, Pfizer and Abbott Labs. The documents are fully searchable and are accompanied by indexing information (metadata). Librarian Kim Klausner provided a tip sheet for AHCJ members about what can be found in the archives, how to use them and a collection of articles based on information found in the archives.

Social media and medical studies 

Using social media to find real people for your story

Liz Szabo
Liz Szabo

May 2013
When writing about medical studies, drugs, devices, medical procedures and other health stories, social media can help you find real patients, not the ones groomed by pharmaceutical companies, to round out your coverage of research and treatments.

In this helpful tip sheet, Liz Szabo, an award-winning medical reporter for USA Today passes on some of her best tricks for using social media to cultivate sources.

Resources and strategies for reporters

Watch for these four red flags when reporting on medical studies

January 2017
Deciding whether to report on a clinical trial or other medical study requires considering factors that range from the study’s news value to the strengths and weaknesses of the study itself. The former is far easier for journalists to determine than the latter.

This tip sheet is the first in a series pointing out red flags that journalists should watch for in the studies they cover. Seeing one in a study doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be covered. In fact, sometimes a study with a lot of red flags is worth covering if it has strong news value but runs the risk of being misinterpreted in other articles. In that case, covering it may present an opportunity to ensure an accurate representation of the study, its limitations and implications compared with other coverage that may or may not cover it so judiciously.

The Beginner’s Guide to Medical Research Reporting from Sharon Begley at the Open Notebook

February 2016
Many of the tip sheets here focus on specific areas of medical research or would be most helpful to veteran reporters who already know the basics of writing about a study or a series of studies. But this tip sheet is for beginners — whether they’re new to reporting altogether, general assignment reporters suddenly assigned a story with a  medical research angle, or long-time veterans who have not reported on medical research before but are moving into it. Senior STAT writer Sharon Begley provides a concise, straight-forward introduction to the most important considerations in deciding what medical studies to cover and how to cover them.

Begley points out this sage reminder: “Somehow, medical writers forget (or never learn) that they are supposed to be journalists, not cheerleaders, and that to serve their readers or listeners they need to bring as much scrutiny, skepticism, and critical thinking to their field as the politics reporter brings to a candidate’s tax plan. And our first chance to do that is by choosing not to cover something.”

Begley covers the unreliability of animal studies in terms of clinical relevance for humans, the pitfalls of covering studies that find associations (that may or may not imply causation), the way statistical significance can be manipulated with p-hacking and the constant need to remain skeptical in assessing research findings. If you’re just starting to get your feet wet in covering medical studies and are feeling a bit overwhelmed, Begley’s piece is a great place to start.

Nine PubMed Ninja Skills

Hilda Bastian, editor for clinical effectiveness resources for PubMed Health, offers a quick tour of PubMed and then gives her top nine habits and shortcuts for using the site.  As she points out, there is so much information available from the resource that the most critical skill is how to avoid being swamped with things that don’t help.

She covers how to refine your searches using filters, narrowing your searches, uisng Boolean operators, looking at articles similar to what you're searching for, finding specific citations, journals or authors and much more.

What reporters can do to work more effectively with PIOs

December 2015
There are a lot of posts and stories out there focused on how public information officers (PIOs) can work more effectively with journalists, or that highlight extremely bad pitches aimed at reporters. I’ve written a few of them myself. But there are also things that reporters can do to work more effectively with PIOs. You don’t see many posts about that.

A couple years ago, I ran a guest post by Lauren Rugani – a PIO at the National Academy of Sciences – on nine things that drive PIOs nuts. Here I revisit the subject, reiterating some of Rugani’s posts but expanding on them too.

Tips for reporters dealing with press offices

December 2015
Health and science journalism today is a complex ecosystem of journals and their publicity machines, public information/press officers at universities, scientists, talking heads that function as quote machines, and the journalists, bloggers and freelance writers who cover the enterprise.  

None of these parts of the ecosystem really can get along without the others in our complex sound-bite driven part of the world. Yet the relationship between institutional press officers and the reporters who cover their scientists and research findings can sometimes become strained, partly because of changes in the university research occurs in recent years.

Advice on communicating the problems with cancer overdiagnosis

November 2015
The media has a role in helping to prevent overdiagnosis and excessive care in medicine. I write a popular blog and can empathize with how hard it can be to resist the “catchy” headline or teaser to help drive readers to your article. The problem is that while evidence advances our understanding, more often than not articles are shared without being read. A short headline becomes fact and misrepresents the science.

Reporting on drugs, devices and medical technologies

Sometimes it helps to start with the very basics for those who have not reported on medical research before. The Commonwealth Fund has put together a thorough and accessible tip sheet on what to consider in reporting on drugs, devices and medical technologies for the beginner in this area. The seven areas they cover will already be familiar to those who have reported on medical research, particularly involving drugs and devices, before, but the tip sheet offers a great place to start for those new to the experience and feeling overwhelmed. The seven areas they cover include the potential benefit of a therapy, the potential harms of it, possible conflicts of interest, the strength of the evidence for it, the biological history of the condition it treats, alternatives to the treatment and its costs

Tips for covering scientific conferences

Mark Taylor
Mark Taylor

May 2015
How can journalists make the most of their time and energy when covering a scientific or professional conference?

Mark Taylor attended the annual Scientific Meeting of the GSA, which featured more than 500 presentations, symposia and poster sessions. He also has covered other scientific conferences in his two decades as health care journalist, and he shares hard-earned wisdom on successfully covering such massive events. 

His tips include how to prepare before the conference, who to talk to, some key items to bring and how to plan out your coverage.

Are you covering a fakethrough?


Jonathan Latham, Ph.D.

February 2014
Remember the burger grown from stem cells? It might be a great idea, except a single patty grown using today's technology costs at least $332,000.

Here, Jonathan Latham, Ph.D., the executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project, asks whether discoveries like that are breakthroughs or "fakethroughs" – scientific advances that will never progress to new treatments or beneficial products. He also talks about his brand of investigative science journalism and why reporting on new discoveries should probably be more muted.

Getting past gatekeepers to cover research requires strategy

October 2013
You have a great medical study to cover – interesting topic, compelling results. All you need is an interview with the study authors to help bring the research home to readers. But scoring an interview with a scientist who works for a government agency can be frustrating and full of dead ends. It shouldn't be. AHCJ's Right to Know Committee is working on improving reporters' access to a number of government agencies.

But change is slow. And your deadlines won't wait. What can you do today for a story that's due tomorrow? Brenda Goodman, AHCJ's medical studies topic leader, offers a set of strategies that recently helped her through an impasse with the FDA.

Covering Medical Research

Covering Medical ResearchThis slim guide will help journalists analyze and write about health and medical research studies. It offers advice on recognizing and reporting the problems, limitations and backstory of a study, as well as publication biases in medical journals and it includes 10 questions you should answer to produce a meaningful and appropriately skeptical report. We hope this guide, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will be a road map to help you do a better job of explaining research results for your audience.

Chapters deal with the hierarchy of evidence, putting types of research into context, scrutinizing the quality of evidence, phases of clinical trials, explaining risk, embargoes, pitfalls of news from scientific meetings, criteria for judging your story and more. The guide links to online resources throughout.

Use of HealthNewsReview.org criteria to evaluate a medical research study

Harold J. DeMonaco, M.S., is the director of Innovation Support at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In a detailed presentation, he breaks down a medical study using the checklist of 10 criteria developed by HealthNewsReview.org.

Tips to generate clinical research & public health news coverage

Robert Logan, Ph.D., is a communications research scientist in the Office of Communications and Public Liason, at the National Library of Medicine in Washington, D.C.  His 2012 conference presentation is an overview of the resources available through the NLM, including PubMed, as well as the fellowship program available through the AHCJ and the NLM.

Scientific language

English, please? How to coax everyday language from your sources

Kathleen Doheny
Kathleen Doheny

April 2013
If you've interviewed anyone with an M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H. or Sc.D. after his or her name, you know: It's often no easy feat to get your sources to speak in everyday language.

Freelance journalist Kathleen Doheny has come up with some strategies to coax more usable language out of sources. Find out what the "java approach" is, ways to suggest to your source that they use more reader-friendly words and how to coach them through the interview.

Reporting on suicide

Responsible reporting on suicide

July 2016

When reporting on suicide, it’s important not only for reporters to have reliable data but also to be conscientious about the language and tone they use.

Suicide is one of the unique topics in which the very reporting of it can influence how much more frequently it happens, so simply doing your job as a journalist has the unfortunate potential to influence the news itself in this scenario.

These tips are a quick-and-dirty list from the World Health Organization’s guide, “Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals.”

Understanding research

Roadmap to evaluating think tank research

October 2017
Not all medical and health research comes from peer-reviewed medical studies. Reports from think tanks can contribute to chasing down a story as well. But relying on research from think tanks requires some homework to ensure a full understanding of the think tank’s objectives, biases, history, funding and other characteristics which could influence their findings. This tip sheet from Journalists’ Resources provides a good starting point for doing due diligence.

These helpful resources can reduce journalistic math anxiety

September 2017
Few things are more frustrating, humbling or sometimes even confidence-shaking than embarking on a story heavy into research – then not feeling equipped to assess the methods and statistics.

Understanding false positives, P-hacking and statistical power

March 2017
This lengthy but informative slide presentation from an experimental psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, was intended for social scientists, it provides a number of helpful tips in understanding what types of P-hacking exists, how to spot it, and what can and should be done to address it. 

 

What to keep in mind when reporting on 'brain death'

Alan CasselsOctober 2016
When reporting on aging, one complicated issue journalists eventually will encounter is “brain death.”

Understanding the nuances of this issue is vital since media reporting shapes public perceptions and so can impact more than 120,000 Americans on waiting lists for a replacement heart, liver or kidney. Nearly two out of three Americans over age 50 are on an organ donor waiting list, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, but because of insufficient organ donations sometimes caused by the confusion around brain death – they may not receive one in time.

Author and researcher Alan Cassels explains some ways to improve reporting on this important issue, including definitions and potential sources.

Resources from the International Society for Pharmacoeconomics and Outcomes Research

August 2016
Clinical literature is filled with questionable evidence and poor data quality reported in randomized controlled clinical trials and observational studies. It is critical that journalists have the skills to navigate the system and independently evaluate the quality of evidence. Clinical decisions may be based on inappropriate methods unless questioned and addressed by skilled journalists.

Health journalists in particular have an obligation and opportunity to tease the threads of innovation, drug discovery, and regulatory environments to provide informed context and a powerful narrative. 

This is particularly critical when evaluating studies regarding older adults and other vulnerable groups. When reviewing methodology, these factors should be taken into consideration.

Quick-and-dirty refresher for overall medical reporting 

July 2016
Sometimes you just need a quick-start guide to reporting on medical studies or a refresher if you haven’t done it in a while. Drawing from three different sources, here’s a five-minute tip sheet you can skim between tasks. It includes guidance on reporting on animal studies, conflicts of interest, reliance on p-values, absolute and relative risk, causation and correlation, transparency, replication and providing context.

Tip sheet includes lessons about reporting on pregnancy exposures

December 2015
In the past several decades, an explosion of research has looked more closely at how exposure to certain substances during pregnancy affect the child after birth. One of the biggest challenges of this research is that nearly all of it is based on epidemiological/observational studies. Therefore, the studies can show an association between an exposure and an outcome, but they cannot show evidence that the exposure actually caused the outcome. 

Olga Khazan learned a number of lessons when reporting “Into the Body of Another” at The Atlantic, which describes the mothers who were serving time in prison for using drugs during pregnancy and thereby “abusing” their then-unborn children.

In a recent tip sheet, Khazan describes the challenges she encountered in reporting this story and tips for journalists who might report on similar topics.

Reporting on side effects and drug studies


Brenda Goodman

May 2014
Recently, Dr. Ben Goldacre, a prominent critic of drug studies, embarked on a research project of his own. He wanted to find out how often side effects reported by users of cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins were genuinely caused by the medications.

His results were surprising and, as a result, he wrote a nuanced explanation of the study findings that makes some key points about the way side effects are reported in medical journals. Brenda Goodman shares them and how they are helpful for health reporters to keep in mind when covering the downsides of new drugs.

Statistical errors even you can find: What you need to know about risks, rate, and ratios

Presentations by Tom Lang, author of How to Report Statistics in Medicine: Annotated Guidelines for Authors, Editors and Reviewers, from the workshop "Medicine 101: Words, numbers and journals" at Health Journalism 2007. 

Understanding medical problems

Presentation by Roy M. Pitkin, M.D., editor emeritus, Obstetrics & Gynecology, and professor emeritus, UCLA, from the workshop "Medicine 101: Words, numbers and journals" at Health Journalism 2007.

Medicine 101: Words, numbers and journals

Overview presentation from the workshop "Medicine 101: Words, numbers and journals" at Health Journalism 2007. Includes information about understanding and using medical language, what you need to know about risks, rates and ratios, statistical errors and understanding medical publications.

Panelists:

  • Barbara Gastel, M.D., coordinator, Science Journalism Program, Texas A&M University

  • Roy M. Pitkin, M.D., editor emeritus, Obstetrics & Gynecology; professor emeritus, UCLA

  • Tom Lang, author, How to Report Statistics in Medicine: Annotated Guidelines for Authors, Editors and Reviewers

  • Moderator: Susan Brink, health reporter, Los Angeles Times

Evaluating medical evidence for journalists

Ivan Oransky, M.D., executive editor of Reuters Health and blogger at Retraction Watch and Embargo Watch, offers advice to journalists on reading studies and reseach, evaluating it and translating it for your readers, viewers and listeners in this presentation from Health Journalism 2012.

Understanding studies, journal practices, how this stuff becomes news

This slide presentation from Gary Schwitzer, of HealthNewsReview.org, discusses many of the common pitfalls of health reporting.

How to read medical studies

AHCJ board member Ivan Oransky, M.D., is the executive editor of Reuters Health where he oversees coverage of some 500 medical studies annually. He also blogs about research at Embargo Watch and Retraction Watch. This presentation from the AHCJ’s 2010 annual meeting has some good tips for finding absolute risk in a study.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: ;What Retractions Tell Us About Scientific Transparency

Ivan Oransky, M.D., vice president and global editorial director of MedPage Today and blogger at Retraction Watch and Embargo Watch, explains the different reasons studies are retracted, how long retractions take, what happens to citations of retracted papers and euphemisms used in describing retractions. All included examples can be found on Retraction Watch. This talk was given at Rutgers for the Omicron Chapter of Beta Phi Mu on Oct. 15, 2014.