by Pamela Fayerman

A decade ago, big newspaper companies had separate reporters for health, science, and the environment. But in recent years, media companies looking to save money and satisfy shareholders, or hedge fund owners, have shrunk their newsrooms. Beat reporters — staff writers who specialize in covering specific topics — came to be seen as a luxury. In the current online environment, where the primary purpose of stories is goading readers into clicking on hyperlinks, fast-filing general reporters churning out breaking news are the priority. As for those health reporters who are still working at media companies, many have been asked to broaden their beats by also covering areas such as the environment and climate change.

As a health reporter for the past 25 years, my approach to developing and crafting stories was informed by many professional development fellowship programs I attended at prestigious American institutions, including the National Institutes of Health, Dartmouth Medical School, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All were co-funded by the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), but still required buy-in from my media employers. It is a great concern that with bare-bones news staffs, health reporters in newsrooms today and in the future will have fewer such opportunities, since editors will be less inclined to allow them to take sabbaticals or leaves of absence for professional development.

Len Bruzzese, executive director of AHCJ and its Center for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, said that even though the overall ranks of reporters covering health started to thin before the pandemic, the association has maintained a fairly constant level of membership. “We have seen an increase in the number of general-assignment reporters and topic-adjacent reporters joining our ranks because they need training, conferences, and, most of all, exposure to longtime health reporters who can help them understand the intricacies of the field.”  The AHCJ wisely recognized that its professional development courses on topics such as interpreting or searching for medical evidence and covering public health must be offered to generalists as well. And now, with COVID-19 grabbing headlines daily, AHCJ is offering a special membership offer for reporters who don’t usually cover health. For a limited time, discounted fees give newbies access to pandemic coverage tip sheets, webinars and experts in virology, epidemiology, pandemic planning, public health, and infectious diseases. This is a prudent decision that should help improve the credibility and accuracy of stories.

The pandemic calls for an analytical approach, and while that is not the exclusive domain of health specialists, expertise is definitely required to report accurately on the vast numbers of research trials that will be done during the next several years as scientists search for vaccines and treatments. Health reporters — especially those who have received the kind of professional development I did — can evaluate the pros and cons of different study designs and understand statistical methods. They can tell readers about the limitations of some studies and look for the signals that indicate whether trials are likely to change treatment protocols. Health reporters know that few medical treatments are hazard-free and they can point out the potential risks and adverse effects of drugs. They know that even after treatments have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory bodies, they should keep an eye out for so-called “post-marketing” reports that bubble up later. Health reporters know it’s important to consider who is funding research because of potential, or perceived, conflicts of interests.

Journalists with little or no training covering scientific research often fall into the trap of hyped-up press releases, thus infusing their stories with words like “groundbreaking” and “unprecedented.” I’ve been guilty of this myself and learned that new findings rarely turn out to be worthy of such hyperbolic language.

Experienced health reporters learn not to get sucked in by research done in early animal models. They know findings presented at scientific meetings may not yet have been peer reviewed and are subject to exaggeration. They know stories should always include information about treatment costs.

It’s easy to get excited by seemingly positive outcomes in research since we so desperately yearn for good news and change. But all reporters who are covering COVID-19 during the years to come must exercise caution. Dramatic discoveries often aren’t. Same goes for promising developments and breakthroughs, not to mention cures and miracles. The best health journalists will deliver reality checks.

Pamela Fayerman was a newspaper reporter for nearly four decades. For the last 25 years, she covered clinical medicine, research science, and health policy for The Vancouver Sun. Now a freelancer, she hosts the website MedicineMatters.