TPP: Every beat you really have to learn the ins and outs of the industry you’re covering. I think every beat is challenging. But I think health reporting right now is particularly challenging because there’s such a high consumer interest in health news. I think that adds pressure. People are making fast decisions for themselves based on what you say. I think the ramifications are different too. If you report on a cell phone ban and you get it wrong, I think there’s a different consequence than if you’re reporting on menopause hormones. The stakes are very high.
FG: In addition to your weekly Health Journal column, you write a feature for the Journal called Health Mailbox, in which you answer reader-submitted questions about their health concerns. Yet you’re not a doctor. That sounds tricky. How do you pull it off?
TPP: I would not say that I give medical advice. I think medical advice is something that you give to someone about their personal health situation. I give medical information. I’m giving people a general guide to getting the answers themselves. I’m very careful. I would never try to deal with someone’s specific health issue. And I always talk to experts and doctors in the field. I think that’s why people read the Mailbox. I’m giving them access to some of the top medical experts.
FG: We recently wrote a story criticizing a journalist for not disclosing her source’s relationship to a drug company. Is that something you find yourself constantly on the guard against — that is, doctors with undisclosed connections to pharmaceutical companies or similar conflicts of interest?
TPP: The thinking at the Wall Street Journal is that we want to know these relationships. When I talk to somebody, I do ask them what their relationship is with the company or with the industry. What’s difficult here is the implicit notion that if you have ties to the drug company that the information is somehow less credible. I don’t think that’s always the case. I think it’s important for the reader to know that and have the opportunity to judge that information on their own.
But I think just because somebody does not have drug company funding does not mean that they don’t have an agenda or a bias. People have invested huge amounts of money and careers in a certain way of thinking, and they bring that to the discussion as well. It’s harder, I think, to relay that to a reader. You can’t just assume that because somebody doesn’t have ties to the drug industry that they’re always right. I think you have to guard against that way of thinking and approach everyone with the same amount of skepticism.
FG: When it comes to health stories, I have a pet peeve. I can’t stand all those supposedly shocking stories about all the bacteria in, say, your kitchen sink, or in the family hot tub. Is there any genre of health story that drives you crazy?
TPP: I would say that my pet peeve is when I see somebody take a single study as the final word on a subject. In medicine, nothing is ever the final word. It’s always just one more piece of the puzzle. We’re all guilty of this sometimes because we get caught up in the story we’re writing.
I think that’s what has happened with the reporting on the WHI. Everybody has bought into this notion that the WHI, because it’s a randomized clinical trial, is the final word and the best evidence that we have. No. It’s very important, and it is a huge contribution to the knowledge. But you can’t forget about everything else that came before it. Really, it’s one study.
FG: So are your friends and coworkers constantly harassing you about their every ache and pain? Is that a hazard of writing a health column?