Health care professionals and journalists say there are problems with the health coverage most of us get on our local stations. To avoid oversimplification and reporting heavily based on press releases, says physician and former broadcaster Tom Linden, TV reporters must be critical; "they have to know the language of medicine and science; and they have to have a good grasp of numbers and statistics."
Local TV Needs Rx For Its Health Coverage
With health care reporting largely in the hands of untrained reporters, local TV’s coverage of medical issues could be spawning a public health hazard all its own.
“We absolutely do more harm than good,” says Gary Schwitzer, a longtime TV health care journalist who worked for stations and CNN and now runs healthnewsreview.org, a seven-year old site that reviews and evaluates health care journalism.
“We are making everything look terrific, risk free and without a price tag,” he says, noting that his site has given up on TV because the medium’s stories score consistently poorly and no one seems to care.
According to Schwitzer and other critics, the problem of TV health news at the local level stems from the fact that most stations rely on general assignment reporters with no training or background in health. That leads to stories that oversimplify complex subjects and tend to rely on PR folks and press releases, including videos.
“Most of it is pretty bad,” says Andrew Holtz, another veteran reporter with CNN on his resume. He also holds a master’s degree in public health, has served as president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and has written several TV-related books including House, M.D. vs. Reality.
The plethora of misleading medical reports on local TV has negative effects, ranging from fueling unwarranted public health scares to creating illusions that each new drug or treatment is the cure-all patients have been waiting for, he says.
Schwitzer, who wrote the Association of Health Care Journalists code of ethics, says TV’s new-hope-or-no-hope approach also puts additional stress on the health care system. “I pity doctors when I hear about viewers who come running in … saying that they saw the news and want what they said will work.”
Dr. Steve Atlas, a Massachusetts General Hospital director and Harvard Medical School professor, as well as a media reviewer for healthnewsreview.org, says it’s not unusual for patients to come to appointments armed with misinformation they saw on TV or online.
“It’s most problematic when the issue is a minor one that distracts from the real health issues,” he says.
Asked for an example, Holtz says the lack of expertise is evident in how TV covers PSA screening for prostate cancer. Coverage has hyped the test as a potential life-saver without addressing the nature of the disease (which tends to be slow-growing and affects most men who live long enough) or the negative side effects of treatment, he says.
Stories that report on supposedly groundbreaking studies are often equally deficient, he claims. Sure, research may show that individuals who take some supplement or another are healthier. But what those stories often fail to include is the fact that people who take supplements tend to be healthier to begin with, he says.
“The reporters who get assigned stories don’t really know what they are talking about and don’t have the right training and background, so they are being outgunned by the PR people who are handling them,” he says. “So they keep getting fed stories that are more about promoting products than actually improving health.”
“[Reporters] accept what doctors tell them,” he says. “It would be like political reporters just accepting as fact everything politicians told them.”
Broadcasters’ use of canned content has also weakened their credibility, the critics say, especially when they have anchors or reporters voiceover video that comes from hospitals and health care associations that have vested interests in the subject matter.
Prestigious medical publications such as The New England Journal of Medicine are the latest organizations to get into the mix, Schwitzer says.
“It can be really impressive to get a video from the Cleveland Clinic or the Mayo Clinic, but does that have any relevance to your local market and isn’t it still a single-source story?” Schwitzer asks.
“The ethics are just out the window,” he says, noting that some stations have medical organizations sponsor their segments. “There is a conflict of interest around every corner in health care.”
Dr. Mike Cirigliano, a University of Pennsylvania internist and professor who also does medical reports for Fox-owned WTXF Philadelphia, says he couldn’t do the job well if it weren’t for his training — and first-hand knowledge of patients and their needs.
“I am able to pick and choose the type of stories that are relevant to people and timely,” Cirigliano says. “And I can’t talk about things like that if I am not living it all day long.”
Cirigliano says his job requires taking complex issues and boiling them down in a way that viewers understand (he’ll bring a human heart into the studio if the visual will help explain a subject) so that they can become educated consumers.
He says reporting on the “cool stuff” in medical technology has little place on TV if few viewers have use for it or understand what it offers.
“I don’t have anything against medical reporters who are not health care [experts] but it’s like me being asked to comment on the North Korea threat,” he says.
The critics don’t expect health reporters to be doctors or to have degrees in public health, although it was commonplace in the past, but they do expect them to be properly trained.
“The only way to improve the coverage of health is to train people to do it well,” says Dr. Tom Linden, a physician and former broadcaster who now directs the University of North Carolina’s Medical & Science Journalism Program. “And then it’s up to the [television stations] to recognize that they need to be willing to pay for the kind of coverage I would hope the public demands.”
Linden says he believes local TV has the opportunity, and responsibility, to cover the medical stories “that will never make it on the network news.”
“But if you’re going to do it, do it right,” he says, adding that doing that requires a TV station to have, at the very least, a reporter dedicated fulltime to covering health care.
Reporters covering this beat have to be critical, he says. “They have to know the language of medicine and science and they have to have a good grasp of numbers and statistics. And they have to be on top of the field all the time in order to separate the wheat from the chaff.
“That’s what it takes to be a good medical reporter. And we certainly need more of them.”