Thursday, January 1, 2009

If it bleeds...

What should we expect from health journalism? The question underlies an editorial by Susan Dentzer in yesterday's New England Journal of Medicine.

When low levels of media literacy collide with low levels of health literacy, indeed: we have a problem. The context that could make all news more meaningful is hard to come by in short form, daily broadcasting. But I disagree with Dentzer if she means to imply that coverage of health in the mass media is more reckless than coverage of other stories. The pressures of the 24-hour news cycle and the competition for the public's (limited) attention affect reporters from all beats and in most media.

I first cynically uttered the motto "If it bleeds, it leads" while still in journalism school. News in all formats, but particularly television, is "led" by whatever story is most extreme, unusual or awful. While working in public relations I once had an editor promise to send a reporter to my news conference "unless something messy" happened elsewhere during that time. Sure enough, a fire usurped my human service client's 15 seconds of fame that day.

Getting a message across
Evolving communciations models (you're reading one) offer promise but, as my father repeatedly cautioned, "you can't believe everything you read." Health advocates, as opposed to journalists, have plenty of motivation to do their jobs. With a little funding, what wonders they could accomplish!

If individual writers and editors want to to use their bully pulpit to perform public service, god bless 'em! Public health advocates will want to buy them lunch -- but ultimately the business of news will eat their lunch. Newspapers are declining so rapidly it's hard to understand how they continue to publish at all. And as long as TV and radio news divisions are required to maintain ratings and ad rates, the financial agenda will supercede all but the most dire of other concerns.

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