Many of the people who deliver weather forecasts on TV news are certified by the American Meteorological Society (AMS), and can therefore legitimately label themselves as broadcast meteorologists. Thus, viewers of weather forecasts can get some indication of whether the forecaster is up to the task.
But viewers don’t know anything about the training or knowledge of the TV personalities who report vital health news — yet those same reporters regularly forecast cures and breakthroughs, epidemics and other health risks. In most cases, TV health news viewers get no indication of whether the forecaster of issues affecting human health knows hope from hype, good science from bad.
There’s something to be learned from how meteorologists handle certification. For 45 years, the AMS has awarded its seal of approval to broadcast meteorologists “who meet established criteria for scientific competence and effective communication skills in their weather presentations.” The AMS Web site explains, “To earn the Seal of Approval, a broadcast meteorologist must apply to the Society, offering evidence of education and professional experience sufficient to meet established national standards, along with three examples of his or her work. … The general public can have equal confidence in the quality and reliability of weather presentations made by broadcast meteorologists approved by the Society.”
In 1992, I wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association about the sorry state of TV health news. At the time, I stated, “I will promote an admittedly radical idea: that is, certification of broadcast medical reporters. I remember when the American Meteorological Society first granted its seal of approval to some television weather forecasters. When I first saw it, it at least distinguished the meteorologist on one channel from the television personality on the other channel who didn’t have the American Meteorological Society’s logo, and who presented his entire weather report along with a cat-puppet sidekick. I challenge the National Association of Science Writers, the American Medical Writers Association and the Radio-Television News Directors Association — three organizations that might, logically, develop such a certification process — to open a dialogue on certification of broadcast medical reporters who have met certain educational or background criteria. That might help viewers distinguish the professionals from the puppets.”
Puppets are journalists who write health stories after talking to only one source, or who write directly from news releases, or who accept video news releases without telling viewers the source of the video, or who fail to see or report on conflicts of interest in the dissemination of health news and information. Puppets will report on unproven new ideas without reporting on evidence, costs and quality concerns. They are being manipulated and are allowing their audience to be manipulated as well. Many of them may have been thrown into health news coverage without any special training, knowledge or interest. And they may be dealing with producers or news directors who push them to echo the same hype that is seen on all the competing stations or networks.
Six years after my JAMA article, Timothy Johnson, M.D., M.P.H. medical editor for ABC News, picked up on the same idea in the New England Journal of Medicine. Johnson wrote: “I will confess to you that when I first became involved in medical journalism in the 1970s, I quickly realized that my training as a physician was not enough, which is why I went to the Harvard School of Public Health to get a basic grounding in biostatistics and epidemiology. I am not saying that all medical journalists must take such a formal approach to their training. But I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the fraternity of medical journalists should develop some kind of system to ensure that those who wish to become medical journalists have a basic knowledge of the subject and some way of certifying them that would be recognized by employers and the reading and viewing and listening public. Before howls of protest arise from many of my journalism colleagues, I would point out that there is certainly a precedent for such credentialing in the media in the use of meteorologists to report the weather. … And I do not believe that our weather reporters are more important than our medical reporters in terms of what they convey to the public.”