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Health Journalists at The New York Times: Five Lessons from their Work

Health Journalists at The New York Times: Five Lessons from their Work

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Whether you're facing hourly, daily or monthly deadlines, it's nice to get some inspiration from some excellent health journalists and the people who edit them.

For that inspiration, I turned off my laptop and opened an actual book: The New York Times Reader: Health and Medicine (CQ Press, 2010). This recently-published paperback, an annotated anthology of work by the New York Times' health and medical writers, is aimed at journalism students, but professionals at all levels can learn from it too.

Anthology editor Dr. Tom Linden, director of the medical and science journalism program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, focuses on covering medicine and health rather than health policy, calling the latter the province of political reporters. That seems to me to be an unnecessarily narrow viewpoint. Denise Grady, for example, whose work is featured in the book, has written plenty of policy-oriented stories on health reform and H1N1/swine flu, among other topics. Still, the book's interviews with some of the nation's leading health journalists, and annotated examples of their work, provides worthwhile reading.  

Here are five lessons I drew from the book:                                                                             

1. Know your stats. Tara Parker-Pope, who writes the New York Times' Well blog, wants to avoid scaring her readers unnecessarily, so she pays very close attention to reporting statistics accurately and completely. "The most important thing any health writer could do is to compare relative risk to absolute risk," she says in an interview in the book. "If what you're saying is going to frighten people, then you need to be absolutely certain that you explain to them what it means to them as an individual." (For more information about reporting on absolute and relative risk, see this post by Antidote blogger William Heisel.)

2. Beware "the tyranny of the anecdote." New York Times Gina Kolata, who is interviewed in the book, says "they can be so, so, so powerful they can make a story come alive, but you've got to make sure that they don't become the story, because an anecdote is not a story. I think of it like an illustration." In her 2009 story, "Advances Elusive in the Drive to Cure Cancer," Kolata chose to begin with a short history lesson rather than a patient anecdote to avoid an emotional reaction that would lead readers away from her main point.

3. Study history. Nothing provides context for current health or medical news like a bit of historical analysis. "Medical history is strewn with well-intended treatments that rose and then fell when someone finally had the backbone to test them," wrote Denise Grady in a story about the limits of cardiac stents , before diving into examples of those treatments.

4. Follow up on your big stories. Sometimes the biggest impact comes not from the initial scoop but follow-up stories days, months or years later. Linden highlights a great example of this kind of follow up with Barry Meier's 2009 coverage following Barnaby J. Feder's (no relation) 2007 story on Medtronic's halt to sales of its Sprint Fidelis lead used in implanted heart devices.

5. "No research occurs in a vacuum." New York Times medical editor Barbara Straugh emphasizes that in medical research stories, reporters must also include context about the funders and researchers involved. "The more we can tell readers about how a certain finding arose, the better. If a study finds a drug works, but the research was largely paid for by the drug company that makes the drug, a reader deserves to know that. If a researcher, however famous, decides to make speeches for and take money from the company that produces a specific drug, we  should tell our readers that too."

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