Veteran Health Reporters Help a Journalism School Distill a Guide for Novices

Seminar series on improving daily newspaper coverage of health issues

In 1998, the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, Gainesville, Fla., developed a pilot seminar to help newspaper journalists improve their coverage of health and health-care issues.

Previous research funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and carried out by the two project directors indicated that daily newspapers' coverage of health issues—particularly, the organization, delivery, and financing of health services—could be improved significantly.

To develop the seminar, the project directors teamed with faculty members of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a St. Petersburg, Fla. school for journalists and teachers of journalism.

Key Results:

  • The project team invited 15 leading health reporters and editors to the Poynter Institue for Media Studies for a three-day meeting in November 1998 to determine the following:
    • What factors distinguish excellence in health reporting.
    • What enables reporters and editors to produce excellent health coverage.
    • What barriers inhibit excellent health reporting.

    Reporters and editors from both large and small news organizations were included to ensure representation from a wide range of newspaper sizes and geographic locations. The project team used the results of discussions to guide the development of a seminar for less experienced health journalists.
  • The five-day seminar was held at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in May 1999. Faculty included staff from Poynter the University of Florida, the Wall Street Journal, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

    The 16 participants, including some in their first year or so on the beat, represented a range of newspapers with varying sizes of circulation.

    Discussion topics included the following:
    • Writing about patients, victims, and families.
    • Online resources for health reporting.
    • Ethical issues in health reporting.
    • Working with editors to get the best health stories into the newspaper.
    • Using graphics to explain difficult health issues.
  • The project directors also sought feedback on their previous research, including the finding that newspaper reporters rarely use health professionals or consumers as sources in stories that focus on the organization, delivery and financing of health care.

    Most journalists commented that the finding was not surprising, given the time constraints they work under. Project directors suggested that some health journalists' practices are so ingrained that it may be difficult to change the way they approach various kinds of stories.
  • The project team set up a listserv (an e-mail discussion group) to enable seminar participants to continue to exchange ideas and experiences. The project team also created for reporters an online guide to covering health issues (no longer available).

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