The universality of health reporting

Lessons from five European journalists

Last week 112 journalists and academics from 12 countries met in Athens to talk about health reporting—the nitty-gritty of engaging audiences, building networks of honest sources, dealing with the conflicts of interest that are so pervasive in the medical business, and, of course, following the money.

In the US, we like to say all healthcare, like all politics, is local. But it’s global too. Health reporters face the same problems and pressures everywhere, even though their countries’ medical systems may be very different. That became clear at the final meeting of the European HeaRT project (for Health Reporting and Training), funded by the European Commission to advance training in health reporting.

So, dear colleagues, I pass along some lessons from our friends across the pond that are worth remembering in this era of fast copy and little reporting time.

Find good experts:
Nicholas Timmons, former public policy editor, the Financial Times, UK.

Timmons tossed out some relevant questions: “What is it that health journalists need to be trained in other than the basics of good reporting? Do we need to train people to be specialists in health, or to train reporters to find specialists who can explain health?” The audience seemed to think the answer was both.

But Timmons seemed to disagree. Knowing how to report, he argued, is the key. Experts can fill in the gaps, he pointed out. It’s always good to have a bio-statistician in your hip pocket or an actuary to call when you have to report something technical or complicated on a tight deadline.

Recognize that real-world pressures sometimes get in the way:
Dr. Muiris Houston, medical journalist and health analyst, The Irish Times.

Sometimes the real-world pressures of reporting bring incomplete results, and conflict with what we think is the idealized standard for reporting. And sometimes we have to live with that, to be content with fragments of truth, Houston told the group. Bear in mind, he added, that we are dealing with science and medicine, which are imperfect themselves. While consumerism in medicine brings accountability and some focus on patient safety, it may also put pressure on our expectations that may not be realized.

Admit what you don’t know:
Kate Kelland, health and science correspondent, Thomson Reuters, UK.

To say you haven’t come across something before is not an admission of failure, Kelland said. Admit that you only know a tiny bit. And then go find out.

Kelland stressed that cultivating good sources was essential to health and science reporting. Find scientists, doctors, public health officials, indicate you are interested in their work, and show them how you might be able to expose it to wider audiences. “Grab every chance to meet these people. Go to conferences, talk to everyone, but concentrate on one or two speakers,” she advised. “Talk about your work and what you need. Create a story bank and send copies of your work to your contacts.

They may quibble and be critical, but that’s okay, Kelland said. “This cements relationships,” she said, “and this is where the best stories come from.”

Create regional networks of health journalists to collaborate on projects:
Vlad Mixich, senior editor,, Romania

Mixich described how groups of journalists from different Balkan countries are working together on an investigation. He started the story with a broad question—why do certain countries do poorly in international health comparisons? Then, more specifically, Mixit said he had noticed that the US Justice Department had announced settlements with big Pharma companies for making improper payments to government healthcare officials—in these same nations. “I asked the question, Do we get the most effective drugs at reasonable prices?”

Mixit and his colleagues wanted to know if the improper payments had any link to the less-than-stellar health statistics. The project, which is examining healthcare corruption in the Balkan region, is a work in progress. Mixit and his colleagues are looking for answers, but together, not alone.

Examine the ownership of private healthcare enterprises:
Amelia Beltramini, managing editor, Focus, Italy.

Beltramini, who works for the most popular science magazine in Europe, and a gutsy bulldog of a reporter, presented the story of how over the past 15 years owners of many private, for-profit owners of health clinics have purchased shares in leading Italian newspapers.

She told of Giuseppe Rotelli, for example, who owns a group that controls 18 of the countries largest hospitals. He is the largest shareholder in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s best-selling daily newspaper. How free, Beltramini asks, are these newspapers to criticize their owners, who also own clinics that may promote medical interventions that may not be evidence-based. “Papers use doctors from private hospitals as sources,” she said.

Beltramini told the group she had begun collecting press releases promoting new medical therapies and examining them to see who is quoted, or as she puts it, “who speaks for whom.” The idea is to eventually warn journalists away from those sources who represent the medical industry, and may have vested interests in pushing a product.

Sounds like a pretty good idea for us here in the US, too, along with investigations into ownership. Healthcare facilities are increasingly becoming part of large groups with the kind of of marketplace clout that affects what treatments patients get and how much they cost.

“If healthcare journalism isn’t able to do its job, private hospitals increase demand through disease mongering and over-diagnosis,” Beltramini concluded. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Related stories:

What We’re Learning About Hospitals, Part One

A shout out to the Palm Beach Post

Medicare costs: Are electronic records the solution—or the problem?

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , ,