TV Medical Reporters - Puppets and Pros

Many of the people who deliver weather forecasts on TV news are certified by the American Meteorological Society (AMS), and can therefore legitimately label themselves as broadcast meteorologists. Thus, viewers of weather forecasts can get some indication of whether the forecaster is up to the task.

But viewers don’t know anything about the training or knowledge of the TV personalities who report vital health news — yet those same reporters regularly forecast cures and breakthroughs, epidemics and other health risks. In most cases, TV health news viewers get no indication of whether the forecaster of issues affecting human health knows hope from hype, good science from bad.

There’s something to be learned from how meteorologists handle certification. For 45 years, the AMS has awarded its seal of approval to broadcast meteorologists “who meet established criteria for scientific competence and effective communication skills in their weather presentations.” The AMS Web site explains, “To earn the Seal of Approval, a broadcast meteorologist must apply to the Society, offering evidence of education and professional experience sufficient to meet established national standards, along with three examples of his or her work. … The general public can have equal confidence in the quality and reliability of weather presentations made by broadcast meteorologists approved by the Society.”

In 1992, I wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association about the sorry state of TV health news. At the time, I stated, “I will promote an admittedly radical idea: that is, certification of broadcast medical reporters. I remember when the American Meteorological Society first granted its seal of approval to some television weather forecasters. When I first saw it, it at least distinguished the meteorologist on one channel from the television personality on the other channel who didn’t have the American Meteorological Society’s logo, and who presented his entire weather report along with a cat-puppet sidekick. I challenge the National Association of Science Writers, the American Medical Writers Association and the Radio-Television News Directors Association — three organizations that might, logically, develop such a certification process — to open a dialogue on certification of broadcast medical reporters who have met certain educational or background criteria. That might help viewers distinguish the professionals from the puppets.”

Puppets are journalists who write health stories after talking to only one source, or who write directly from news releases, or who accept video news releases without telling viewers the source of the video, or who fail to see or report on conflicts of interest in the dissemination of health news and information. Puppets will report on unproven new ideas without reporting on evidence, costs and quality concerns. They are being manipulated and are allowing their audience to be manipulated as well. Many of them may have been thrown into health news coverage without any special training, knowledge or interest. And they may be dealing with producers or news directors who push them to echo the same hype that is seen on all the competing stations or networks.

Six years after my JAMA article, Timothy Johnson, M.D., M.P.H. medical editor for ABC News, picked up on the same idea in the New England Journal of Medicine. Johnson wrote: “I will confess to you that when I first became involved in medical journalism in the 1970s, I quickly realized that my training as a physician was not enough, which is why I went to the Harvard School of Public Health to get a basic grounding in biostatistics and epidemiology. I am not saying that all medical journalists must take such a formal approach to their training. But I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the fraternity of medical journalists should develop some kind of system to ensure that those who wish to become medical journalists have a basic knowledge of the subject and some way of certifying them that would be recognized by employers and the reading and viewing and listening public. Before howls of protest arise from many of my journalism colleagues, I would point out that there is certainly a precedent for such credentialing in the media in the use of meteorologists to report the weather. … And I do not believe that our weather reporters are more important than our medical reporters in terms of what they convey to the public.”

Johnson addressed journalists in any medium; I focused only on television reporters who cover health and medicine. Now 13 years after I first raised the idea, I’m raising it again. In many television markets across the country, the quality of health news and information has plummeted to a level that makes watching many TV health stories an unhealthy activity. In my own research, I have described ten troublesome trends in television health news. They are: brevity (average story length of 45 seconds); absence of reporter specialization; sensational claims not supported by data; hyperbole; commercialism; disregard for the uncertainty of clinical trials; baseless basic science predictions; single-source stories; a paucity of coverage of health policy; and little, if any, enterprise journalism.

Corrections for most of these troubles are within reach — with a little time and training. But the truth is the meteorological lobby may be stronger than the forces calling for improved health journalism. Texas State Rep. Vicki Truitt introduced a bill this year which would have made it a misdemeanor for people who give weather forecasts on television to call themselves “meteorologists” unless they have completed more than 40 hours of college-level study in several subjects, including atmospheric science, physics and ordinary differential equations. “I think the general public just assumes that if someone on the evening weather says, ‘I am a meteorologist,’ we assume they’re formally trained,” Truitt said in an article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Yet there’s no specific requirement that they must be. I got to thinking of it from a public-safety perspective, and if someone says they’re something that they’re not, and given the weather in this state, that could potentially create a dangerous situation.”

She decided to withdraw the bill after meeting with three Texas television news staffers, but in the meantime the American Meteorological Society is toughening its certification standards, creating a new “Certified Broadcast Meteorologist” category. To be certified, a meteorologist must accumulate a number of “professional development” points over a five-year period. Points are given in 25 categories, including for attendance at certain workshops and completing related undergraduate or graduate-level courses.

I just completed two terms on the board of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), a six-year-old organization with more than 850 members. Perhaps AHCJ could be the certifying body for broadcast health journalists. I’m going to promote the idea within AHCJ, but I expect opposition. The idea of certifying journalists may send up red flags if it’s viewed as an attempt to control journalists. It is not that. It is merely an attempt to certify for viewers that the journalist cared enough to learn more about coverage of vital health issues. Maybe those seeking certification would improve their reporting. Maybe it could prevent some of the shameless sensationalism and waste of airtime that occurs in empty, meaningless reports of health news.

Those seeking certification could attend workshops or use online training modules to learn about how relatively meaningless it can be to cite relative (rather than absolute) risks; about the Food and Drug Administration approval process; and about how to scrutinize claims and evaluate the quality of evidence presented by sources. Workshops on health journalism ethics would address the trend toward commercialism that has seen television journalists reporting on their own heart scans, on their own Lasik surgery, and on wrinkle-removing products, usually with no discussion of the evidence supporting the effectiveness of these new ideas, nor the costs associated with them. Those who are new to the health beat would benefit simply by studying the Association of Health Care Journalists’ statement of principles.

Quality and reliability should be greater concerns in health news than in weather forecasts. Surveys consistently show that many Americans get most of their health news and information from television, yet, according to a 2002 Gallup Poll, television is the least trusted source of such information.

In his NEJM article, Dr. Tim Johnson wrote: “If we think it is important to certify hairdressers and massage therapists, might not it be important to certify those who transmit medical news day in and day out? As Mark Twain reportedly put it, ‘Be careful about reading health books; you may die of a misprint,’ or, I might add, of a mistake.”

Certification wouldn’t eliminate misprints or mistakes. But what journalists learn in the certification process would help them do a better job, and would help protect viewers as they try to separate the pros from the puppets.

Gary Schwitzer worked in television medical news for 15 years at CNN and in Milwaukee and Dallas. He is now director of the health journalism graduate program in the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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Gary Schwitzer is a contributor to CJR.