Losing journalists who cover such a specialized beat as health is significant. Reporters often spend years building up an expertise in the intricacies of medicine. They must learn how to decipher, explain, and put in context complex, confusing, and often controversial developments in treatment and cures, breakthroughs and disappointments. They need to translate medical speak into plain English. They need to be on top of developments in such areas as pharmaceuticals, clinical testing, hospital care, infectious diseases, and genetics. Theirs are not the kinds of stories that other reporters can easily produce.

In 2009, Ferrel Guillory, director of the University of North Carolina’s Program on Public Life, explained in a North Carolina Medical Journal article how the latest staff reductions had impacted health reporting at one paper. “Only a few years ago,” he wrote, “the News & Observer in Raleigh had as many as four reporters assigned to various health- related beats. They covered the big pharmaceutical industry in Research Triangle Park, Chapel Hill-based Blue Cross Blue Shield, the medical schools of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, and local hospitals. As of August 2009, the N&O has only one reporter with a primary focus on health.” Guillory concluded that, although the appetite among the public for health stories remained high, “dependable, continuous” health cov- erage had diminished. Further, he wrote, journalists (in particular, those on television), focus more on emergencies, public health “scares,” and the announcements of new “cures” and technologies than on important policy matters and major trends in health and health care.

Mark Silverman, editor of the (Nashville) Tennessean, recalls the day he stood with a staff researcher in front of a blackboard listing major stories he had hoped the paper would produce in the coming months. One line listed a story about how the state medical board was allowing incompetent doctors to mistreat patients, be disciplined by local hospitals, and then continue practicing medicine at other locations. But that story idea had an “X” next to it, meaning it would not get done, because the paper now had one health reporter instead of two.

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.

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.