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Well Sourced: Finding the right health sources and asking the right questions

Well Sourced: Finding the right health sources and asking the right questions

Picture of William Heisel

You start the day at a nurses’ strike outside your city’s biggest hospital. Then you type up your notes from an interview with a geneticist who may have found a key to treating brain cancer in children. But, just as you begin to type, your editor tells you that you have to cover an online press conference about an outbreak of hantavirus at a popular tourist spot.

That’s the health beat. And the range of things a reporter is expected to cover on a short turnaround is even broader and more complex. And the beat is so rich with documents, data, and smart sounding people that it can be hard to sort through everything quickly under deadline pressure.

Over the past six years working with California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships’ Reporting On Health project, I have attempted to corral the best sources into one spot to share with reporters who are starting the beat for the first time or with colleagues who just want a fresh perspective.

My two main inspirations for this knowledge-sharing work have been and continue to be Charles Ornstein at ProPublica and Duff Wilson at Reuters, two of the most gifted and most generous reporters ever to write about health.

Three things are worth noting up front.

First, there are no absolutely perfect sources. Every source has pluses and minuses, and I will attempt to explain those as I write about each.

Second, you may have to get out of your chair. It’s hard given the number of blog posts, on-air appearances, live updates, etc. that many of you have to do, but you should bring your jacket to work tomorrow because many of the most useful records, such as coroner’s reports, require you to leave the office.

Third, it doesn’t take a year to dig for medical dirt, as you’ll see. I’ve cited examples of stories that used the records in question and included some first-hand testimonials from reporters. Some of the story examples I provide were turned around in one day. You’ll find that once you develop the habit of checking these places, your story list will grow stronger. Let’s start with a source so jam-packed with information that you could write a story every day for a year just from one website.

SOURCE: The Cochrane Collaboration

WHAT IT DOES: Collects medical and scientific research. The site provides massive assessments of the available literature – called systematic reviews – that weigh the evidence on thousands of health topics. These reviews usually include a “plain language summary” to help you understand the importance of the findings. Cochrane also maintains registries of:

WHAT IT DOES NOT DO: Primary research. These are scientists studying the work of other scientists. As reviewers, they are not in laboratories performing biological and chemical experiments. Also, the Cochrane research panel will leave out research it deems flawed or too small in scope. This can be a good way for you to weed out weak research, but you should make sure you understand the exclusion criteria.

RECORDS: Confused by all the apparent conflicts between studies on subjects such as cholesterol and mammograms? The Cochrane Library gives you a great way to search meta-analyses that encompass decades of research. It can be a useful tool for broader understanding. You can read the summaries of the findings for free, and you can get the full documents for a subscription fee. You can search the entire site or you can click on the library link just to search for meta-analyses. If you are a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, you can get free access to all of the records.

SUGGESTION: The next time you see a report about a “breakthrough,” plug the type of treatment or condition into the Cochrane Library search engine. That’s a quick way for you to become familiar with the breadth of the science out there and know which questions to ask the researchers touting the latest advance.

EXAMPLE: In July 2008, reporters around the world saw the power of the Cochrane Library when it released the results of its review on breast self-exams and found that they don’t do a good job of detecting cancer. A lot of reporters at the time wrote a “just-another-study” story and poo-pooed the results. Sharon Begley, then at Newsweek, gave the review the weight it deserved while discussing the raging debate around self-exams in a short, impactful post.

TESTIMONIAL: I asked Begley, now the senior science and health correspondent for Reuters, about her piece. Begley told me she looks at the Cochrane reports regularly and uses them to get away from the study-versus-study type of reporting that can confuse readers.

“I have long had great respect for them, partly as a reaction against what I see as reporters' continuing tendency to do study-of-the-week stories with no clue or indication to readers as to whether the latest finding is in accord with the weight of evidence or not,” Begley said. “As we all know by now, individual studies can be skewed every which way, and although analyses like Cochrane's – and meta-analyses in general – are not foolproof, they're pretty damn good.”

Begley had written about breast self-exams while at The Wall Street Journal, and so the study resonated with her.

She wishes the library were simpler to navigate and that the research was always available without paying a fee. She suggested that if more reporters asked Cochrane for access, the library might decide that it was worth waiving the fee to reach a broader audience with its work.

Photo by Edith Soto via Flickr.

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