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The best approach to media coverage of health issues may be an appeal to journalistic ethics and values. This may involve calling journalists during peak story sourcing times, being accessible to provide background information and interviews and providing brief, clearly presented key point fact sheets.
1. Find a personal touch.
It is widely recognised that the mass media can be a poor vehicle for communicating health and medical information, prone to sensationalism and sins of omission.  However, little research explores the ways in which journalists select and shape news on health issues, and few offer insights for health communicators seeking to maximise their impact.
This study draws on semi-structured interviews with 16 journalists, including reporters and editors from Australian print, radio and television news organisations reporting on avian influenza and pandemic planning. Findings suggest that to gain media attention, health stories need a personal touch – something that will make them relevant to ordinary people. Journalists were particularly interested in stories involving an individual impacted by a health issue, or those describing the impact of an issue on communities.
Moreover, to be considered ‘newsworthy’, a story needed to occur during peak news gathering times; have momentum; have a’shock factor’ (fear, death or destruction – such as a potential pandemic); or be novel, exciting or quirky; have local relevance; or involve disagreement or controversy. Journalists were also keen to appear ‘objective’ – a trait achieved by quoting respected expert sources, being aware of, but not actively supporting, their own agendas and ensuring they covered a range of opinions.
Specialist medical reporters were able to produce more quality health stories, in part due to their familiarity with technical aspects of medicine and health and their ability to build trusted networks of experts who could provide them with informed commentary and tips. Health communicators should seek to identify specialist medical reporters in their own organisation, cultivate these relationships and be willing to support them and supply them with stories.
2. Stay networked.
In a time when it’s easier than ever to stay digitally connected, it’s still important to nurture a relationship with new acquaintances by taking them out for lunch or coffee now and again, and texting or calling them now and then to check in. This can help keep the momentum going, especially when unfolding healthcare news is keeping them busy.
Specialist medical reporters have baseline levels of technical knowledge to help maximise technical accuracy; negotiate with editors and producers about story selection and angle; and maintain a network of trusted expert sources that they can draw upon. They also serve as gatekeepers, excluding stories that are radical or ‘inaccurate’ based on their own notions of quality.
Keeping up to date with local and national policy developments is critical for health care professionals, but can take a toll on their mental and emotional well-being. A good way to balance this is by turning to trusted platforms that provide analysis of breaking medical news and research, allowing users to select the content they want to consume.
3. Find a specialist medical reporter.
Journalists value their independence and integrity and prefer to avoid conflict of interest. They are often sceptical of the accuracy and credibility of claims made by scientists. They also think that experts often fail to explain their work in simple terms and tend to focus on anecdotal findings. They feel that the relationship between journalists and medical specialists is a meeting between two cultures with very little in common, which creates tension and opportunities for misunderstanding.
Providing expert information in an easily digestible format is important for journalists, especially when it comes to technical topics such as vaccines and new treatments. Journalists also like to hear the personal impact of a health issue on an ordinary person, which makes it more likely to catch their attention.
As a result, the most valuable sources of information for health reporters are individuals who can offer an average ‘Joe Blow’ angle to a story. In addition, they value experts who can provide the latest news and statistics, and who are available to answer questions on short notice.
In this way, you can help journalists get their stories on the front page of newspapers and radio stations. This will increase their awareness of the topic, which may lead to further discussion and debate within society.
However, it’s worth noting that the majority of journalists will only give priority to a health story if it is:
a scoop; relates to current events (e.g., a disease outbreak); is relevant to their audiences; carries a moral message; is sensational or contains a ‘fear factor’ (e.g., pandemic influenza); involves controversy; is newsworthy at a peak time in the day; or has visual appeal for television. As such, you will need to appeal to their ethical values in order for them to prioritise your story above all others. Alternatively, you could argue that it will be of benefit to their audience. This is known as making a “case for” a story. In this case, the journalist will have to make a judgment call about whether or not your argument is persuasive.
4. Make it easy for them.
News media often rely on experts who can comment on health issues through their regular work. However, this type of expert commentary can be problematic if it is used to further a specific political agenda. As a result, one study found that reporters prized objectivity in health reporting by focusing on quoting respected and well-informed experts and by presenting and reporting on dissenting opinions.
Health News is a free, daily news service aggregating the latest medical research and breaking health news with professional medical analysis. It is useful for busy clinicians, health care professionals and educated consumers who want to stay up-to-date on the latest developments in medicine and healthcare policy.