Health Writer Hint #7 Report responsibly


You’ve landed a plum writing assignment on a great health, fitness, nutrition or environmental health topic: Woo hoo!

Now what?

Let me take a moment to refer back to Hint #1 Start where you are. You have, haven’t you? That’s #1 not only to help you pitch articles you’re likely to get, but to protect you from screwing up the assignments once you get them. (And you will get them.)

But what if your first assignment has you in over your head? And believe me, it happens all the time. Should you say uncle, or just wing it? Whether the writing or the medicine has you stumped–or both–you may find that writing even the simplest little health bite can be a lot harder than it looks.

As health writers, we have a responsibility to research and report the science accurately and to communicate it as clearly as possible because both readers and doctors may act on what we write. We can’t just write off the tops of our heads, even if we think we know something.  And it’s not only unethical but irresponsible to take the easy way out by relying on press releases or other writers’ work. We must do our own research and report what we find responsibly.

As Susan Dentzer says in her article Communicating Medical News — Pitfalls of Health Care Journalism (January 2009 NEJM):

“We are not clinicians, but we must be more than carnival barkers; we must be credible health communicators more interested in conveying clear, actionable health information to the public than carrying out our other agendas. There is strong evidence that many journalists agree — and in particular, consider themselves poorly trained to understand medical studies and statistics. But not only should our profession demand better training of health journalists, it should also require that health stories, rather than being rendered in black and white, use all the grays on the palette to paint a comprehensive picture of inevitably complex realities.”

If you’re smart (and you probably are or you’d have bailed by now), keep the assignment and plan to spend a lot more time reporting it. Sure, your pay rate will look paltry by the time you file the assignment. But think of it as training you can’t get anywhere else. What you learn will come in handy on future assignments. You will write about the topic again–most likely many times–and those future assignments will come together more quickly. I promise.

You don’t have to know all the answers. That’s why you’re going to identify and speak with as many top experts in the field as you can. Any you’re going to look up the current research and get up to speed on the topic first, so you won’t waste the experts’ time.

A few good places to begin researching your articles:

Where to find expert health, nutrition, and fitness sources:

  • Medical Universities
  • Associations for specific specialties
  • Profnet

If you want to stay out of the medical circus, I highly recommend reading Dentzer’s full article.

Happy Health Writing,

Kathy Summers

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