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.”
Johnson addressed journalists in any medium; I focused only on television reporters who cover health and medicine. Now 13 years after I first raised the idea, I’m raising it again. In many television markets across the country, the quality of health news and information has plummeted to a level that makes watching many TV health stories an unhealthy activity. In my own research, I have described ten troublesome trends in television health news. They are: brevity (average story length of 45 seconds); absence of reporter specialization; sensational claims not supported by data; hyperbole; commercialism; disregard for the uncertainty of clinical trials; baseless basic science predictions; single-source stories; a paucity of coverage of health policy; and little, if any, enterprise journalism.
Corrections for most of these troubles are within reach — with a little time and training. But the truth is the meteorological lobby may be stronger than the forces calling for improved health journalism. Texas State Rep. Vicki Truitt introduced a bill this year which would have made it a misdemeanor for people who give weather forecasts on television to call themselves “meteorologists” unless they have completed more than 40 hours of college-level study in several subjects, including atmospheric science, physics and ordinary differential equations. “I think the general public just assumes that if someone on the evening weather says, ‘I am a meteorologist,’ we assume they’re formally trained,” Truitt said in an article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Yet there’s no specific requirement that they must be. I got to thinking of it from a public-safety perspective, and if someone says they’re something that they’re not, and given the weather in this state, that could potentially create a dangerous situation.”
She decided to withdraw the bill after meeting with three Texas television news staffers, but in the meantime the American Meteorological Society is toughening its certification standards, creating a new “Certified Broadcast Meteorologist” category. To be certified, a meteorologist must accumulate a number of “professional development” points over a five-year period. Points are given in 25 categories, including for attendance at certain workshops and completing related undergraduate or graduate-level courses.
I just completed two terms on the board of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), a six-year-old organization with more than 850 members. Perhaps AHCJ could be the certifying body for broadcast health journalists. I’m going to promote the idea within AHCJ, but I expect opposition. The idea of certifying journalists may send up red flags if it’s viewed as an attempt to control journalists. It is not that. It is merely an attempt to certify for viewers that the journalist cared enough to learn more about coverage of vital health issues. Maybe those seeking certification would improve their reporting. Maybe it could prevent some of the shameless sensationalism and waste of airtime that occurs in empty, meaningless reports of health news.