Health: A March 2009 report, titled “The State of Health Journalism in the U.S.,” produced for the Kaiser Family Foundation, found that the number of health reporters has declined even though reader interest in the topic remains strong. Fewer reporters are doing more work, resulting in “a loss of in-depth, enterprise and policy-related stories.”139 The report, by Gary Schwitzer, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, concluded:
interest in health news is as high as it’s ever been, but because the staff and resources available to cover this news have been slashed, the workload on remaining reporters has gone up. many journalists are writing for multiple platforms, adding multimedia tasks to their workload, having to cover more beats, file more stories, and do it all quicker, in less space, and with fewer resources for training or travel. demand for ‘quick hit’ stories has gone up, along with ‘news you can use’ and ‘hyper-local’ stories.
As a result, many in the industry are worried about a loss of in-depth, enterprise and policy-related stories. And newsrooms with reduced staff who are facing pressure to produce are more vulnerable to public relations and advertising pressures. Health news may be particularly challenged by the issues of sponsored segments, purchased stories, and [video news releases] Vnrs.
While specific figures are not available to track newspapers’ reduction in health reporters, the Kaiser report said that, in a survey of members of the Association of Health Care Journalists, 94 percent of respondents said that “bottom-line pressure in news organizations is seriously hurting the quality of health news.” Further, 40 percent ofjournalists surveyed said that the number of health reporters at their outlets had gone down during their tenure there, and only 16 percent said the number had increased.142 In addition, “39 percent said it was at least somewhat likely that their own position would be eliminated in the next few years.”
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.