Those seeking certification could attend workshops or use online training modules to learn about how relatively meaningless it can be to cite relative (rather than absolute) risks; about the Food and Drug Administration approval process; and about how to scrutinize claims and evaluate the quality of evidence presented by sources. Workshops on health journalism ethics would address the trend toward commercialism that has seen television journalists reporting on their own heart scans, on their own Lasik surgery, and on wrinkle-removing products, usually with no discussion of the evidence supporting the effectiveness of these new ideas, nor the costs associated with them. Those who are new to the health beat would benefit simply by studying the Association of Health Care Journalists’ statement of principles.
Quality and reliability should be greater concerns in health news than in weather forecasts. Surveys consistently show that many Americans get most of their health news and information from television, yet, according to a 2002 Gallup Poll, television is the least trusted source of such information.
In his NEJM article, Dr. Tim Johnson wrote: “If we think it is important to certify hairdressers and massage therapists, might not it be important to certify those who transmit medical news day in and day out? As Mark Twain reportedly put it, ‘Be careful about reading health books; you may die of a misprint,’ or, I might add, of a mistake.”
Certification wouldn’t eliminate misprints or mistakes. But what journalists learn in the certification process would help them do a better job, and would help protect viewers as they try to separate the pros from the puppets.
Gary Schwitzer worked in television medical news for 15 years at CNN and in Milwaukee and Dallas. He is now director of the health journalism graduate program in the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication.