What’s a Health Journalist To Do?
Friday, May 23, 2014
Earlier this month, Health and science reporter Virginia Hughes came across a new study about Resveratrol - a chemical in red wine that over the years has been both heralded as heart healing and dismissed as bogus. So she went back and reviewed earlier headlines about Resveratrol in the New York Times. The earliest was from August, 2003, titled “Life-Extending Chemical is Found in Certain Red Wines,” but in the years since, the headlines have ranged from charges of fraud to new optimism, to inconclusive studies, to more skepticism and then more optimism. This head-spinning trajectory is the norm in such stories because science is a process. So what’s even the most conscientious health reporter to do? Hughes posted about the saga of resveratrol on her blog, Only Human, hosted by National Geographic Magazine, and she sparked a big debate among health journalists themselves about the perils of reporting the latest health news.
“Science is iterative and often incremental, and the news is the news”. She wrote, “and so, science journalism is molded into a heffalump of both, where every new study suddenly becomes a news peg.”
Now, unlike a lot of other beats, when you read an article about health it’s often personally relevant. Hughes uses a story on neuroscience as an example of a piece that readers might read with curiosity and intrigue. Health stories, however, draw readers that are expecting practical advice. But to be absolutely true to the nature of science, you can't, in reporting, imply a better way to behave. On the other hand, as Hughes pointed out when she spoke to Brooke, “if you're covering something, the reason is because you think your reader is going to glean something from it.”
While Hughes explained that these conflicted studies have not lead her to increase or decrease her red wine consumption, she did admit to dietary reports affecting her thought, at least at first. Now, even those reports are overturned and debunked so often that Hughes has taken to largely ignoring them and simply, as she put it: “eat[ing] in moderation and do[ing] what [she] wants.”
Sometimes the stakes are fairly small, but sometimes, they can be very high. Cancer screening, for example, is a subject about which experts do not always agree, so journalists are covering an active debate about the benefits and harms. As Hughes notes, though, this method of reporting can also be beneficial or harmful.
“The good journalist will be honest and transparent about that debate and about the pros and cons. The bad ones or the time-strapped ones will present advice, you know, cloaked in a scientific brand and then leave it at that.”
In order to try and solve some of the issues surrounding health journalism, Hughes asked her readers within the health science journalism community to talk about what could be done to better cover health, and they came up with a bunch of possible solutions. One of them is explanatory journalism. The premise of this method would be to ignore the typical ‘news pyramid’ mode of reporting, and to instead offer links that allow the reader to explore the debates at their own leisure or interest level. Another suggested solution was to report on several studies at once. In this way, the reporting would demonstrate the variety of arguments that have arisen throughout the study on an issue. Other readers suggested reporting on how the science is done as opposed to the outcomes.
In general, though, these options suggest that, in order to do the best possible job reporting on health science, the journalist has to deny the readers what they most want. So Hughes offers another option – lowering expectations.
“[Insert] debate and nuance and doubt. I hate stories that treat science as some holy seer that has the answers to everything, because it’s absolutely not, and being wrong is sort of built into the process of science.”
In her blog post, Hughes wrote that, “The science of health is so, so confusing, I almost wonder if it would be better for journalists to stop writing about health altogether,” and while most of that cynicism has faded, she told us she still believes a genuine change is needed.
“Ninety-some percent of all biomedical research in this country is funded by the public, and the public deserves to know what they're paying for. I just think we need to be a little bit more selective about what we cover and more honest and transparent with readers about what those studies are showing.”
Virginia Hughes is a science journalist in New York. Her blog titled, Only Human, is hosted by National Geographic Magazine.