While doing research for a book, Maryn McKenna, a former health writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, made an astonishing discovery: The “flesh-eating disease”—MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus—
was rampant at Folsom Prison in California. In an average year, the highly contagious skin infection kills 19,000 Americans, puts 370,000 in hospitals, and sends an estimated seven million to doctors or emergency rooms. “Some guards are getting infected, seriously infected,” McKenna says. “When prison guards go home, they take MRSA with them.” Now, families and friends, wives and children, the convenience- store clerk who hands over change or a lottery ticket are susceptible to the infection, which easily spreads outside the prison into the general and unwitting population. At the time, MRSA had been described in the national and specialty press, but no one had written about the situation at Folsom. “I just kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe nobody’s written about this,’ ” McKenna says. “Why hasn’t it been in the L.A. papers, in the San Francisco papers? It’s not like those are lazy institutions.” She then realized that, as at many newspapers large and small, deep staff cuts had left them unable to cover the story. The crisis went unnoticed until McKenna wrote about it.

Even when they are able to cover a medical story, time-strapped reporters often miss significant pieces of information. In the Kaiser study, more than 75 percent of the 500 stories reviewed concerning treatments, tests, products, or procedures failed to adequately discuss cost. And more than 65 percent failed to quantify the potential benefits and dangers, according to HealthNewsReview.org, a website created by Schwitzer, the author of the Kaiser study.

In the report and on HealthNewsReview.org, complaints abound from seasoned reporters who lament the growth of “press release reporting” and the lack of time they have to check out the veracity of information contained in a press release. Twenty eight percent of health reporters said that they personally get story ideas from public relations firms or marketing outreach somewhat or very often. Among those who work on at least some web content, half said that having to work across different media has resulted in less time and attention for each story, and 59 percent said it meant that they work longer hours.

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Steven Waldman was senior advisor to the Chairman of the FCC and principal author of its report on the changing media landscape. He was chair of the Council on Foundations Working Group on Nonprofit Media and is a consultant to the Pew Research Center. Before that, he was the founder of Beliefnet.com and a national correspondent for Newsweek.