Since January 2000, Tara Parker-Pope has written a health column for the Wall Street Journal. In the past, she has covered consumer products for the Journal and done political and government reporting for the Houston Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman.
Felix Gillette: You recently wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) — an immense fifteen-year study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, which focused on how three separate variables — low-fat diets, consumption of calcium and vitamin D, and hormone replacement therapy — affected the long-term health of women. In your article, you wrote that “a flawed communications effort led to widespread misinterpretation of results by the news media and the public.” How did the media mess up the reporting on this study?
Tara Parker-Pope: In writing and reporting the story, it seemed clear to me that the problem started with how the information was disseminated. The people at the NIH are scientists, and they have this deep understanding and detailed knowledge of how science works. Most reporters don’t have that kind of experience. To a great extent, we rely upon the experts.
Certainly the media has some of the responsibility for confusing this message. But I think the problem started with a question of emphasis. I think there was a concern at the NIH to go with the overall finding, the top-line results of this research. But what they didn’t factor in was that those top-line findings were clouded by some serious design challenges within the study. As a result there was really no simple way to explain the top-line findings.
Had there been more explanation of why the overall result was difficult to interpret and why some of these subgroup analyses [within the study] were, in fact, important and meaningful, I think that the media would have done a better job with this. But if you read the transcripts and the press releases, there was an unflinching commitment to the overall findings. I do think that there was a responsibility to communicate this better on the part of NIH.
I also think that as reporters, we should never take anything at face value. I think a mistake that a lot of people might make is to read the press release. [Emphasis added.] I almost never read the press release. I read the study first, because I don’t want to be swayed by what the press release says. That’s what you have to do with any kind of scientific research — ask what is really being asked here, and how much is really being answered?
FG: Can you really expect NIH, after spending $725 million on the study, to point out what’s wrong with it?
TPP: I do think we should expect them to give us the best information. What I like about health reporting is that data is data. It’s not as subjective as some of these other things. But you still have to look at all the factors. You have to look at the compliance rates of the study. You have to look at the women who are recruited. It’s really nuanced. You have to ask yourself and ten other people, what are we really seeing here?
FG: In your story, you quote a professor from the Stanford University School of Medicine, who says, “Unfortunately, science never works in sound bites.” Do you agree?
TPP: I think it is true. But I also think just because we have 15 seconds or 800 words or whatever the amount of time we have to tell our story, we still have to get it right. It’s challenging but it’s also what’s kind of fun about being a health writer — taking this really technical, complicated stuff and distilling it down into something that people can understand and use to make decisions about their health. That’s what I like about the job.
FG: How is writing about health issues different from other beats you’ve covered in the past — for example, consumer products, or politics?
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?
Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.
TPP: I get tons of ideas from my life, my friends. It’s really good feedback. Health is so personal. You just really have to listen to what people are thinking about and talking about and saying. The vast majority of my ideas are not so much from the medical journals, but from what people are talking about. I like when people send me notes and say, ‘My great aunt’s best friend’s cousin had this happen to her. What do you think?’