Few topics receive more media attention today than the topic of health. Yet, in the view of some journalists, many of the stories being told about health are not ones journalists want to tell or that members of the public need to hear. As Andrew Holtz, a freelance health reporter and president of the Association for Health Care Journalists, observes, “… stories I think need to be told, are often not the ones that easily sell. My personal frustration is not the issue, but we should be concerned when journalists are inhibited from the work of sustaining an informed and involved citizenry.”
M.A.J. McKenna, a staff writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, explains what the public health beat is and why such coverage, which “investigates the threat, occurrence and prevention of health problems—infections, chronic diseases, injuries and exposure to toxins—not in individual patients, but in groups that can be as small as an elementary school classroom or as large as the global population,” is so important. In excerpts from a report she wrote for The Century Foundation, journalist and author Patricia Thomas examines how and why journalists encountered difficulties in trying to report essential public health information during the 2001 anthrax crisis. Sanjay Bhatt, medical reporter for The Palm Beach Post, then describes what worked and didn’t work when he set out to cover news of the nation’s first anthrax case that occurred in Palm Beach County. Author and journalist Madeline Drexler uses her experiences in reporting on public health to demonstrate how much more difficult it is to report such stories after September 11th. With many sources, particularly those connected to the government, she writes, “… there’s an unmistakable chill in the air.”
Using computer-assisted reporting, Dave Davis, an investigative reporter at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, identified fault lines in this nation’s widening racial health gap. His five-part series then drew attention to communities where black Americans are hardest hit by disease and violence by telling stories that brought the statistics to life. In Newark, New Jersey, The Star-Ledger dispatched a team of reporters and a photographer in a months-long investigation of lead poisoning in children. News feature writer Judy Peet explains how what seemed like an oft-told urban story took on new dimensions as the reporting team “learned about the politics, followed the money, studied the research, and tracked the lawsuits,” and then found families whose children had been failed by the system set up to protect them. Photographer Mia Song’s pictures portray the lives of those affected by lead poisoning.
As Boston bureau chief for “Marketplace,” a nightly public radio business news program, Madge Kaplan was involved in the production of more than 1,500 stories examining health care trends since 1995. Now, as senior health desk editor at Boston’s WGBH Radio, she is concerned that “with so many stakeholders and powerful forces intersecting throughout the system, it becomes harder and harder for patients to be portrayed in our stories as anything more than victims or people being acted upon.” Susan Dentzer, who is health correspondent with “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” examines why journalists have such a difficult time fully reporting the story of the millions of Americans who do not have health insurance. “… we have not yet managed to fully penetrate the health system and serve as direct eyewitnesses to the precise ways in which the uninsured get short shrift,” she writes.
In a yearlong series about alcoholism that won a Pulitzer Prize, Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune projects editor Eric Newhouse debunked myths and unearthed facts about this disease. He also learned lessons about reporting on people who are made vulnerable by illness, and he shares those with us. By exploring the connections between farm policy and what children eat for lunch in public schools, freelance writer Barry Yeoman, reporting in Mother Jones magazine, defied conventional wisdom and discovered some unexpected causes of childhood obesity. Yeoman notes that “until other journalists start thinking critically about school nutrition—and asking different questions—the national debate over childhood obesity is not likely to shift ….” The Boston Globe sent reporters and photographers to four developing countries to see, in the words of foreign editor James F. Smith, “how lives were being lost due to the lack of basic health services.” Pictures taken in Cambodia by Globe photographer Michele McDonald convey the impact that poor or nonexistent health care has on a nation’s inhabitants.
No disease sickens or kills as many people worldwide as does AIDS, and in developing nations its murderous toll is rapidly increasing. Journalists, particularly those who work in the hardest hit nations of Africa, confront challenges in reporting this story. Huntly Collins, who covered AIDS at The Philadelphia Inquirer, writes about going to South Africa as a Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation Teaching Fellow to offer guidance to African reporters in ways to improve their reporting on a disease that each day kills 6,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa. Sabin Russell, medical reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, also spent time reporting on AIDS in Africa and writes that “most reporters and news organizations are ill-equipped to write about this disease and its health issues on a global scale.” In 2000, Time sent photographer James Nachtwey and a senior writer to Africa to document in a 20-page cover story the ravages of this disease on its victims, their families, and caregivers. In words and images, Nachtwey describes why he must tell this story. Joseph Ngome, a reporter for BBC Kisumu radio in Kenya, explains how cultural beliefs, government interference, and lack of training in science writing become barriers to good coverage.
Melinda Voss, executive director of the Association of Health Care Journalists, contends that health journalists need and want special training in how to improve their coverage. “However, almost no program offers training in such journalism fundamentals as how to interview health and medical researchers or how to report medical research,” she writes. Larry Tye, a former Boston Globe reporter who directs the Health Coverage Fellowship in Massachusetts, shows the value of an intensive eight-day fellowship in which medical and health reporters are equipped with tools and information they need. Felicia Mebane shares information about the content of health care reporting and finds that “issues involving health care and health care policy do not get the attention they deserve.” Coverage reflects neither the importance of these issues in our lives nor “does reporting on them even receive its fair share of attention when the overall subject is health.”