Medical Reporter, Heal Thyself

Why This Matters

Author Information
Dorfner is a broadcast veteran who has focused on health writing, producing and reporting. She is the founder of NewsMD Communications, a production company specializing in health-related subjects.

There is a lot of criticism about the state of broadcast health journalism. But understanding the obstacles medical reporters meet can guide strategies for improving the informative value of medical journalism. Those barriers include difficulties with terminology, a lack of time, problems finding and using sources, and commercialism.

For starters, all medical and health reporters should be trained on how to understand and analyze medical studies and information before the results are broadcast. That seems a reasonable, minimal goal. They must be able to differentiate between diverse types of studies—this helps them separate hype from real, important information.

There are resources available online and offline, and excellent books and resources at libraries that can help a non-medical person read technical health data. Medical reporters can and must educate themselves.

Conversely, physicians working as health reporters should make sure they are also trained in writing, producing and reporting. Reporting health news is about communicating well. It doesn't matter how much academic knowledge physicians have if they aren't able to communicate it to a TV audience.

Whatever their degree of expertise, reporters typically have less than two minutes to tell their story—and news directors rarely give them more if the story is complicated, as many medical issues are. That means reporters must be able to quickly utilize all the resources at their disposal, including graphics, Chyrons and animation equipment.

As a health reporter, there is no excuse for not understanding a scientist. It is up to the reporter to help a scientist communicate their information in layman terms—for example, asking them to use an analogy and asking the right questions. How would they explain it to a four-year-old? Learning how to ask the right questions takes years of practice but is part of being a good journalist.

It is crucial for reporters to keep track of “experts” who won't talk or seem almost too eager to help. They may have a financial tie to a product, company or person related to the story. Reporters should find out who is talking and why, or which medical institutions are offering access and why (or why not).

Finally, to avoid commercialism, health reporters should not rely on prepackaged stories. Many physicians who migrate to television news believe their knowledge and understanding of medical terminology will make them better at communicating with the public. But since they lack actual reporting or producing skills, they end up relying heavily on prepackaged content. They quickly learn all they have to do is retrack the video with their own voice—and, presto, they've got a health story for the day.

That is not good enough and is dangerous, as these stories are press releases promoting a product or service. Tempting as it may be, health reporters should not lean on satellite feeds to substitute for real medical reporting.