“The chasm between medical journalists and physicians appears mostly to be one of ignorance rather than conflicting interests or malice,” writes Terry L. Schraeder, who for 10 years worked as a medical journalist before entering medical school. Now doing her residency in internal medicine, she uses these experiences to highlight the problems between journalists and doctors and ways to close the widening gap of distrust. She is convinced that only when they “understand the other’s professional training, education, deadlines, responsibilities, codes of ethics, and internal stresses” will the chasm narrow.
Stephen Kiernan, a reporter at The Burlington Free Press, worked many months in his investigation of medical malpractice in Vermont, examining its effect on patients and the state’s policies in dealing with harmful physicians. One lesson: “It is human nature to treat secrecy with skepticism; in this case, concealment proved an accurate guide to keep the reporting going.” Chris Adams, a reporter with Knight Ridder in Washington, D.C., demonstrates the value of using computer assisted reporting with projects in medical journalism both big and small. He’s relied on these technological tools to help cover the Food and Drug Administration. In Maine, Barbara Walsh, who writes about children for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, used databases, documents and shoe-leather reporting to stitch together the untold story of what happens to her state’s mentally ill children. Publication of her series led to changes in their care. “[T]hese children were no longer invisible. Family, friends, politicians listen to their stories now,” Walsh writes. Paul Lieberman, cultural correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, chronicles a career of happenstance, as time and time again he fell into investigating medical malfeasance. “Lesson One: Readers care about this stuff,” he observes.
Social documentary photographer Meryl Levin shares images and words from her book, “Anatomy of Anatomy,” which tells stories about medical students’ experiences as they work with cadavers to understand the human body.
Neil Munro, who covers the politics of science and technology for the National Journal in Washington, D.C., describes how language that advocates use gets adopted by journalists and shapes coverage of the debate about stem cell research. He compares mainstream media’s coverage of this issue to how journalists reported on the dot-com bubble by magnifying “the industry’s promise and predictions.” Aaron Zitner, also based in Washington, reports on science policy for the Los Angeles Times. He describes why journalists need to be extremely cautious in their reporting on human cloning, as many have not been. “When we did challenge their claims, reporters often fell into a simplistic is-not, is-too style of reporting that gave equal footing to the ‘cloners’ and their better-credentialed doubters,” he writes. San Jose Mercury News editorial writer Barbara Egbert helps readers understand policy and public funding decisions about what medical science is researching. “[W]hile those decisions may be obscure, they reflect on human nature, which anyone can understand,” she says. Kathleen Rutledge, editor of the Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star, writes about lessons learned when her paper and local broadcast partners used a civic journalism approach to “inform citizens and engage them in a thoughtful and civil discussion of the ethical implications of medical research.”
Philip J. Hilts, former New York Times reporter and author of “Protecting America’s Health: The FDA, Business and One Hundred Years of Regulation,” describes difficulties reporters confront in unraveling political rhetoric from medical fact in many issues that involve the FDA, which he covered for 20 years. In The Cancer Letter, a weekly newsletter that watchdogs cancer research, Paul Goldberg unearths important details in documents that journalists often miss; information he published about ImClone Systems, Inc. in January, soon made front-page news in major newspapers.
Jenni Laidman, science writer at The (Toledo) Blade, set out to follow cancer patients through a clinical trial and “use their stories to tell the story of cancer ….” She writes of her reporting journey: “I started out so seduced by this molecule. I ended up seduced by hope, by human effort and human frailty.” Photographs by Blade photographer Jetta Fraser accompany Laidman’s words. At the Star-Gazette in Elmira, New York, editors took a different approach to reporting on cancer, and Lois Wilson, deputy metro editor, describes the paper’s yearlong project “examining how cancer affects our community and its residents.” Diana Campbell, a reporter with the Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, explains how she is using her Alicia Patterson Fellowship year to investigate the rising incidence of cancer among Alaska Natives.
Mary Annette Pember documented the increase of Type II diabetes among Native Americans as well as culturally relevant treatment and prevention programs. She shares her photographs and writes about experiences of people she met in her reporting.
Philip J. Cunningham, who writes for the South China Morning Post, describes a complex mix of cultural and political influences that affected how the Chinese media handled their reporting about SARS. John Abramson, a family practitioner and instructor at Harvard Medical School, offers eight guiding principles for accurate and fair coverage of research findings. Among his advice: “Financial ties of all experts quoted should be included in the story.” Mervin Block, a former staff writer on the “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite,” demonstrates what can go wrong when a writer tries to transform complicated research findings into a short and simple news story. And Perri Klass, a pediatrician who often writes about her medical practice, finds her loyalties divided as she moves between journalism and medicine.
Medical editor Ragnar Levi, author of “Medical Journalism: Exposing Fact, Fiction, Fraud,” gives journalists roadmaps for finding the kind of evidence that good reporting requires. Lewis Cope, coauthor with the late Victor Cohn of the second edition of “News & Numbers: A Guide to Reporting Statistical Claims and Controversies in Health and Other Fields,” provides helpful hints about medical coverage, including words that best convey the degree of uncertainty usually involved in medical research and practice. Thomas Linden, director of the Medical Journalism Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writes about what is learned in studying how to report on medicine and medical issues. “[T]o really own the medical beat, you need to know the subject matter,” he writes.