Skip to main content.

Is health a top five beat in the newsroom?

Is health a top five beat in the newsroom?

Picture of Angilee Shah

If you are starting, joining or reimagining local news, which specialized beats would you prioritize with limited resources? Robert Niles at the Online Journalism Review recently asked that question and listed his top five picks. He wrote that food, education, labor, business and faith should take priority. The omission of a health beat rankled some of Niles' readers and raised important questions about local health reporting. Where should health as a specialized beat fit in as a local news priority? Can health be covered well by food and business beats? Can it be a profitable addition to a website or newspaper?

This week at Career GPS, we continue this debate. You can share your comments -- or your own top five beats -- below. Also find this week's health media opportunities at the end of this post. Keep up with Career GPS by subscribing to the ReportingonHealth weekly newsletter or via RSS.

Here's a rundown of how the debate began. A commenter to Niles' post expressed dismay that health care was not including, citing its centrality to peoples' lives as well as the amount of money involved. Niles updated the post to address readers' questions:

I see health as a strong niche play, as demonstrated by the proliferation of so many health-oriented websites. But, like entertainment, it's a different play when covered exclusively from the local perspective, as I'd like to see.

So if you have the readership to expand your staff beyond the initial five beats (and six, if you add local entertainment), adding a local health reporter would be a good call. (Remember that nutrition would be covered under food.) But keep in mind that the reporter's focus must be on what's happening with health in the local community, and not duplicating national and international health reporting. Link to that, instead.

In comments, Niles continues his response to comments:

Obviously, the employment, development and business aspects of health care are covered by the business beat. And the processes of obtaining and paying for health care are a huge part of labor. Nutrition comes under food. And things that are national or international health stories should be linked to outside sources.

The reason I didn't list health is because once you factor out those stories, I didn't see enough left on a purely local health beat to place it next to my top five. (As I mentioned in the update, I'd place it in a second tier with entertainment and recreation, which also could cover some health-related stories.) That's not to infer that health isn't important, but I'm talking about building a profitable local play.

Ultimately, you are looking for answers to these questions: Will the addition of this beat allow me to provide coverage that is unique to my community? Will that coverage elicit productive, insightful engagement from my audience? If the answers to those questions are 'yes,' then ask if the addition of that beat will allow you to sign additional local advertisers that you would not have secured without this beat - advertisers who will bring enough money to you to pay for that additional reporter.

Career GPS contacted Ann Imse, editor of Colorado Public News and someone who recently made news beat choices on a tight budget. Imse chose health care as her news site's first specialized beat and successful secured funding for it from a local foundation.

"Health and healthcare reporting has been one of the first beats to disappear as revenues fall at news media. So there's a shortage of such information in our communities," she wrote in an email. "Suggesting that food and business reporters can handle healthcare on the side isn't practical. Each of these specialties is much too large."

"A health care beat has great possibilities for support," she explained, "from health foundations, and from employers and citizens dealing with ever-rising insurance premiums, and eventually from health care companies hoping to reach an audience."

Not surprisingly, Michelle Levander, the editor of ReportingonHealth and director of the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, is also an advocate for health specialization. She points to surveys over the years that consistently show readers' interest in health care news. She also points out that "health" goes beyond health care, making it a broader beat for local news outfits. Fellowship-supported projects, such as Shortened Lives in the Contra Cost Times and Worlds Apart in the St. Louis Beacon, are emblematic of the kinds of reporting a local health beat can contribute. KQED Reporter Sarah Varney's report on the high cost of one local Sacramento hospital shows what a sharp-eyed investigation of local health care institutions can reveal, Levander says. She explains in an email:

Community health – writ large – is about the well being of entire communities. Good community health can depends on a host of factors that include health care, of course, but also race, education, poverty, environmental hazards and violence. Community conditions are so fundamental to health that public health researchers have been able to quantify that residents from affluent neighborhoods can live a decade or more than disadvantages neighbors just miles away.

I asked Charles Ornstein, a senior reporter at ProPublica and president of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), and Trudy Lieberman, contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review and former AHCJ president, to engage in the debate. They too defended their health specialty.

"I'm really quite surprised that health would not be included. We need more health reporters, not fewer," Ornstein wrote in an email. On local health beats, he adds:

Even if you factor in the health stories that can be written by the wires, think of all the local health institutions that consumers rely on-doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, assisted living centers, other health professionals. Do you really expect the reporter who covers the local bank or the local shopping scene to parachute in and cover these institutions well? A reporter covering health understands the difference between Medicare and Medicaid, assisted living and nursing homes, etc. To ask a local government reporter or education reporter to thoroughly cover food deserts in their community or childhood obesity in their schools is too big of a stretch.

Lieberman takes an equally adamant stance. "I argue strenuously that this should be a beat, and it should be a dedicated beat with a well-trained reporter," she said in a phone conversation. Dwindling local health coverage has increased the gap between Washington policy makers and the communities their policies affect. Local journalists should be explaining the effects of complicated health care laws on specific communities. She points to "bright spots" in local health news, such as a Las Vegas Sun series about hospital safety in Nevada.

"I think reporters need to know what's allowed and how that should translate into what people are seeing, and whether or not they're being deceived at a local level," Lieberman said. "It's a Washington story but it's not a Washington story. It's a local story."

What do you think? If you were an editor at a local newspaper or website with limited resources, would you dedicate a reporter to health? What are your top five beats? Respond in comments below this week's jobs, fellowships and awards listings.

Opportunities in health media

Director of Policy and Communications, Health Trust (via Philanthropy News Digest)
Location: Campbell, California
Status: Full Time
Medium: Communications

Editorial/Media Assistant, Rutgers University, Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs
Location: Piscataway, New Jersey
Status: Full Time
Medium: Journal

Grant Writer, Vietnamese American Cancer Foundation (via Philanthropy News Digest)
Location: Fountain Valley, California
Status: Part Time
Medium: Nonprofit Fundraising

Health Editor,
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online

Health Reporter/Writer, Lifescript (on LinkedIn)
Location: Beverly Hills, California
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online

Medical Writer/Editor, Virginia Lawyers Weekly (via JournalismJobs)
Location: Richmond, Virginia
Status: Freelance
Medium: Bi-monthly Newspaper

Multi-Media Healthcare Reporter, Colorado Public News (via JournalismJobs)
Location: Denver, Colorado
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online, Television, Radio

Senior Editor, Inside Triathalon (via JournalismJobs)
Location: San Diego, California
Status: Full Time
Medium: Magazine

Staff Writer, Social Policy (particularly health policy), CQ Roll Call
Location: Wasshington, D.C.
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online, Weekly

2011 Hillman Prizes
Eligibility: Work published in 2010 in the United States with impact on social justice or public policy
Award: $5,000 plus a certificate and travel to NYC for our reception
Deadline: Jan. 31, 2011
From the Website: "Since 1950, the Sidney Hillman Foundation has honored journalists, writers and public figures who pursue social justice and public policy for the common good."

Masters in Specialized Journalism, USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication
Eligibility: Complete online application; separate requirements for each program
Program: Nine-month program with flexible schedule
Deadline: Jan. 30, 2011 to be considered for scholarship, March 5, 2011 for admission
From the Website: "These highly customized degree programs are primarily designed for experienced journalists and gifted amateurs; the arts program welcomes practicing artists and recent graduates of arts academies and conservatories."

REMINDER: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation Health Coverage Fellowship
Eligibility: Open to medical reporters and editors
Included:Year-long fellowship with nine days of training on issues ranging from mental health to public health and health reform in Babson College's Center for Executive Education in Wellesley
Deadline: December 3, 2010
From the Website: "Most media fellowships take seasoned journalists away from their jobs for a full year and require employers to pay part of the cost. In contrast, the Health Coverage Fellowship residency component lasts just nine days, requires no financial contribution from media outlets, and ensures that participating reporters and editors come back with a list of story ideas, a Rolodex of new sources, and a full year of free tutelage from a former Boston Globemedical reporter with 20 years of experience at small, mid-sized, and large newspapers."
Contact: contact Program Director Larry Tye at larrytye [at] aol [dot] com

REMINDER: Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, Association of Health Care Journalists
Eligibility: Work published in 2010 on a wide range of health topics including public health, consumer health, medical research, the business of health care and health ethics, entry fee $30-$75
Award: Cash prize of $500 for first place winners in five categories, a framed certificate and complimentary lodging for two nights and registration for the annual AHCJ conference
Deadline: Dec. 28, 2010 (discounted rates), Jan. 28, 2011
From the Website: "The contest was created by journalists for journalists and is not influenced or funded by commercial or special-interest groups."

REMINDER: Kaiser Media Internships Program
Eligibility: New journalists who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents with experience reporting on health issues of diverse and immigrant communities, typically graduating from college and/or journalism school
Included: 12-week summer program with stipend, travel, training, and some accommodations, and 10 weeks residency with a news organization
Deadline: Dec. 1, 2010 doe print, Jan. 6, 2011 for broadcast
From the Website: "The Media Internships Program provides an initial week-long briefing on health issues and health reporting in Washington, D.C. Interns are then based for ten weeks at their newspaper, online, or radio/TV station, typically under the direction of the Health or Metro Editor/News Director, where they report on health issues. The program ends with a 3-day meeting in Boston to hear critiques from senior journalists and to go on final site visits. The aim is to provide young journalists or journalism college graduates with an in-depth introduction to and practical experience on the specialist health beat, with a particular focus on diverse and immigrant communities."

REMINDER: Nieman Fellowships in Global Health Reporting
Eligibility: Full-time journalists with at least five years experience
Included: One academic year of of study at Harvard's School of Public Health, access to faculty and courses across the university, three to four months of fieldwork in a developing country
Deadline: January 31, 2011
From the Website: "Nieman Fellows represent the changing face of journalism. They come to Harvard from locations as different as Bangor, Maine, and Younde, Cameroon. They work for national and local print publications, broadcast news outlets, news Web sites, and documentary film ventures. Some are making their mark as freelance journalists. Some have practiced their craft under repressive governments or on far-flung fields of conflict. Together, each year they form a Nieman class that is rich in diversity, experience and aspirations for the years ahead."


Picture of Ryan Sabalow

Though health reporting is important, I don't think a small-town paper with just five beats to choose from could realistically have a full-time health reporter.

This is coming from a small-town GA who sometimes covers health.

If I was an editor and I had to pick five reporters at a small-town, rural paper like mine, their beats would be:

-- Public safety

-- City government

-- County-regional government

The bottom two would be a toss-up between the following three (in no particular order):

-- Environment  

-- Education

-- Health

Since I only had two bodies, I’d probably just divvy up those beats among two general assignment reporters.

Niles says faith and food deserve full-time beats. What planet does this guy live on? When budget problems caused our paper to cut back our religion and food coverage (we used to have full-time staffers) there were a few complaints, but hardly enough to say the community was clamoring for more news on the latest church social or how to make Baklava.

Back to health. It's an important topic, sure, but stuff like crime, tax increases and school closures have a more immediate impact on people's lives, and that's what gets eyeballs on newsprint or clicks on a website.

Health stories, though important to tell, just don't have that same immediacy. And now that we can track what people are reading, page-view counts show that health stories don't drive clicks like a good old bank robbery or a proposed water-rate increase.

Plus, reporters at a small-town paper like mine are routinely asked to write at least two stories a day simply to fill white space for the next day's edition.

Health reporting requires depth and research, I’d argue even more so on a local level, where relevant, hyper-local health stories aren't just handed to a reporter.

I challenge even the best health journalist to write two, well-researched, fair and timely local stories a day on the small-town health beat, where there are no medical schools cranking out studies, where there are no trials on the latest medical gizmos and where the reporter is far, far away from policymakers deciding the latest healthcare legislation.

Ryan Sabalow

Redding, Calif. Record Searchlight

Picture of Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou

I agree... forget beat reporting at a two-person paper, much less having a health beat. I really relate to this especially: "relevant, hyper-local health stories aren't just handed to a reporter."

Still, I think people are interested in health stories. I really hate judging something by the number of clicks a certain type of story usually gets. It's our job to get people interested, especially if it's important.

I usually think about handling beats at small papers this way. Just be patient. Work on building up one beat at a time. And by this I mean figuring out who you can call on a moment's notice to do a decent story on the topic. Maybe after working through the first five beats, you'll get to health. But that could take years... I know one basic beat I'm working on has taken me two or three just to feel proficient enough to move on to the next.

Btw, why distinguish the reporters as general assignment if there are no actual beat reporters to distinguish them from? Wishful thinking? ;-)

Picture of Michelle Levander

Ryan, thanks for the very thoughtful comments!

Picture of

Health care reporting has NEVER been more important, and should be in the top 3 of any editor's list, and in fact the smaller the town, the higher on the list it should be.  Why?  Because without your health what have you got?   

Public Safety, isn't that also health care?  City, and local government?  How many small town hospitals have "inside and back room deals" going on with city fathers? 

What is the impact of the largest employer being the local hospital on the single mothers, the families whose benefits are determined by the nurse or lab technologist working at the hospital, the small shops and services who depend on the hospital to survive. 

If you're not covering the fraud, scams, and harrassment in the medical workplace, who is?

Not what you want to hear, eh?  But that's the role of investigative reporting:  To be the watchdog for the rights and liberties of the average citizen!

We know what goes on in a lot of the "markets".  The newspapers rely on the advertising of the hospitals and healthcare corporatons for revenues and profits.  We have seen unsightly nightmares all polished up and made-over by cowardly newspapers and politically correct reporters.  Just think, what goes around comes around, and maybe some day when you, or your loved one is really in need, what is "really" going to be there for you?

Yes it is very important to cover the positive achievements of hospitals, doctors, nurses, and health care organizations.  However often they have their propaganda press releases.

We need you to do the hard work. 

As the health care reform "discloses" itself, there will be a lot honest and clear reporting needed.

Please keep genuine investigative health care reporting alive!!!


Follow Us



CHJ Icon