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Survey shows 'battered' health journalists press on Date: 03/11/09

9 of 10 say they'd make same career choice again

Survey of AHCJ Members
March 2009, Kaiser Family Foundation/Association of Health Care Journalists

The State of Health Journalism in the U.S.: A Report to the Kaiser Family Foundation
March 2009, by Gary Schwitzer, associate professor, University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication

The full survey and report were released at a Washington, D.C., discussion about the future of health journalism featuring a panel of experts and health journalists:

  • Trudy Lieberman, AHCJ president and director of the Health and Medical Reporting Program at City University of New York
  • Gary Schwitzer, associate professor, School of Journalism, University of Minnesota, and director,
  • Jonathan Cohn, health policy blogger and senior editor, The New Republic
  • Laurie McGinley, executive editor, Kaiser Health News
  • January Payne, associate editor, health section, U.S. News & World Report

A webcast of the briefing can be viewed later today. 

By Phil Galewitz

Health care journalists cited newsroom cutbacks, lack of time for research and travel and fewer opportunities for training at their news organization as factors making their jobs more challenging than ever, according to a survey released today by AHCJ and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But health journalists are a hardy bunch.

Nearly three-quarters of health journalists surveyed said the amount of coverage given to health care topics has stayed the same or increased at their news organization and two-thirds said the quality of coverage has been stable or gotten better over the past few years.

Almost 260 professional members of AHCJ responded to the online survey, conducted in September and October. Of the people responding, 39 percent worked in print media and 26 percent were freelancers.

In many ways, the survey findings mirrored the state of affairs in the journalism business. For example:

  • Forty percent of respondents said the number of health reporters has gone down since they started at their news organization.
  • More than 9 in 10 health journalists said bottom-line pressures in media organizations were hurting the quality of news coverage of health issues.
  • Nearly 40 percent said it was either very likely or somewhat likely that their position will be eliminated in the next three years.

About 3 in 4 respondents said that U.S. journalism was headed in the wrong direction, but just more than half felt that way about health journalism. And two-thirds of respondents said health care journalism was headed in the right direction at their media outlet.

Job Duties

The survey showed a significant percentage of health journalists are adopting new story-telling platforms. About 1 in 4 has their own blog and more than a third have created video, slide shows or audio for the Web.

Some findings raise yellow flags about whether economic conditions were impacting the quality of health journalism: About 44 percent of respondents said their news organization frequently or sometimes reports stories on news releases without substantial additional reporting or contacting independent sources. And 11 percent of respondents said their news organization frequently or sometimes allows sponsors or advertising staff to influence story selection or content.

Despite the challenges and the uncertain times, 88 percent of respondents said if they had to make their career choice over again they would still go into health journalism. Interestingly, that was the same percentage of respondents who said they had health insurance.

"Journalists covering health care need AHCJ now more than ever," Trudy Lieberman, president of AHCJ, concluded from the study. She pointed to the 43 percent of respondents who said training opportunities covered by news organizations had declined. "This is definitely going in the wrong direction and we are here to help."

"Reporters are having, in some places, a hard time doing their jobs as space is gone, support is gone and many of their colleagues are gone," Lieberman said. But she said the fact that 42 percent of respondents said the quality of health care journalism has improved at their news organization is a positive sign.

Is health journalism heading in the right or wrong direction?

Gary Schwitzer, an AHCJ member and associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, interviewed more than 50 health journalists for a Kaiser Family Foundation report on the state of the health journalism industry also released today.

Schwitzer said he found the AHCJ survey and his interviews showed health journalists "are a proud but battered bunch."

"There should be cause for great concern about what is in this report and the trend to lighter and softer and cuter news-you-can-use features that is taking away time and space for meatier investigations and health policy coverage especially at the local level."

He lauds AHCJ members for fighting the good fight. "AHCJ members are dedicated to this beat because they believe they are leaders in quality improvement," Schwitzer said. "You don't get into this stuff unless you care."

Phil Galewitz is editor of HealthBeat and a health writer for The Palm Beach Post.