Has Medical Journalism Sold Its Soul?

Photo: Has Medical Journalism Sold Its Soul? The Encroachment of Marketing Threatens Journalistic Integrity

In the Preamble to its Code of Ethics, the Society of Professional Journalism declares:

... public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy ... Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty.

There are examples, many in the 20th century, when print and broadcast journalists lived up to this standard with the support of editors, producers and publishers who seemed to know no other way. As is true of many professions, journalists have been called upon to develop special expertise in order to provide insights on complex issues. It follows that the special expertise defines the purview of their journalism going forward.

Medical journalism is a specialty in journalism with its own peer review and professional organization. The Association of Health Care Journalists was founded in 1997, is based at the School of Journalism of the University of Missouri and has more than 1,000 members. In their Statement of Principles, the association did not shy away from recognizing the moral hazards inherent in translating "health" news to the public:

We should strive to be independent from the agendas and timetables of journals, advocates, and industry and government agencies. We should nourish and encourage original and analytical reporting that provides audiences/readers with context. Given that thousands of journal articles and conference presentations appear each year, and that relatively few are immediately relevant to our audiences/readers, health journalists have a responsibility to be selective so that significant news is not overwhelmed by a blizzard of trivial reports. We are the eyes and ears of our audiences/readers; we must not be mere mouthpieces for industry, government agencies, researchers or health care provider ... Health care journalists should remember that their loyalties reside with the truth and with the needs of the community.

Another Reporting Specialty at Stake: Health Journalism

Living up to these principles is a challenge that is met unevenly. But the ethical standard is understood and shortcomings met with disdain in the profession.

Programs in Health and Medical Journalism have been developed at a number of the leading schools of journalism. The program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was founded about a decade ago. I have been privileged to participate on the Advisory Board for several years. This capacity coupled with my own activities as a physician and clinical educator has offered me a front-row seat in a dialectic that needs wider appreciation, if not reproach.

The consensus, at a recent Board meeting, was that health journalism is more beleaguered than most other specialties by the financial crunch that faces the entire Fourth Estate. One fallback available to editors in such a circumstance is to purchase the coverage from leading journalists in the employ of other outlets. We have grown accustomed to this when it comes to finance, politics, sports and international coverage. This compromise applies to health reporting as well. But health reporting has access to another source, one that is particularly appealing given its packaging and the cost. This source hides behind the euphemism, Health Communications.

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