James Hamblin: A fresh perspective for health journalism

The Atlantic editor has accumulated a loyal following with his video series "If Our Bodies Could Talk"

James Hamblin keeps getting compared to Doogie Howser. Sure, The Atlantic’s senior editor and health columnist came to the gig with bona fide expertise: he is an MD who worked as a radiologist at UCLA. And at age 32, Hamblin not only looks young, but he is steeped in precociousness as the host of the magazine’s playful video series, “If Our Bodies Could Talk.”

It’s a recipe for popularity. In the short-form video series, the likeable Hamblin carves out space where science meets everyday life. He explores questions about “purposeful boredom” and the health benefits of going outside. Many videos have Web-friendly hooks, like “CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side.”

The series is poised for an expansion. While previously pulled together when Hamblin and producer Katherine Wells had spare time, The Atlantic is hiring a producer to focus on it. It will soon be coming out weekly in regular “seasons,” and individual videos will build on each other to explore larger and more substantive issues. Hamblin is even moving from Washington, DC to New York City, largely so that he can connect with more video-suitable resources.

At the same time, Hamblin continues to write. His recent profile of “The Food Babe” showcases his analysis—both incisive and compassionate—of how one of the biggest figures in popular nutrition uses science when it fits her assumptions but disavows it when it does not. He is also an improv comedian. Back in Los Angeles, Hamblin ducked out of the radiology lab to perform on the city’s legendary comedy stages. While the improv scene in DC leaves something to be desired, his Twitter feed (nearing 17,000 followers) amounts to a case study in iterative stand-up. And the light touch of his videos have attracted notice. “It’s only a matter of time before Hamblin’s got his own show or something,” according to Refinery 29. When Capital New York profiled him last fall, it extolled the personability of his down-to-earth performance.

Indeed, Hamblin brings a rare note to the high-pitch world of health journalism, which veers between wonky and woo-woo extremes. He’s funny without being gimmicky. He is self-deprecating to a fault; in fact, he indulges a little too much in the wide-eyed “average guy” persona in his videos, belying his own education and intelligence. But the truth is, his field expertise, paired with his improv training, give him an uncommon skill set that suits our modern multimedia moment: he skips among different platforms with agility, bringing credibility along with him.

I spoke with Hamblin by phone. Our conversation has been lightly edited and abridged.

So, what does modern health reporting look like?

That’s a big question. A lot of people are doing great work, but it seems that it’s easy for everyone to—I don’t want to call it doing reporting, it’s more like being voices in health media. It’s very easy to confuse people, to promise simple solutions, and everyone has a platform, so it’s easy to break in. People want to know about their bodies, to be healthy; they want quick fixes, and there’s an unprecedented flow of people who are trying to fill that demand. Tons of books, tons of people with super popular lifestyle blogs, and they’re all advising specific cleanses, or saying gluten is causing all your ailments—that sort of thing. On one hand, it’s a great time for health media, because people have so much information. The patient-doctor dynamic is fundamentally changing. Physicians are not the guardians of all health knowledge; they’re more like consultants now. People have so much information, but a lot of it is confusing and terrifying. So health reporting is more important than ever. It’s doing the job of sifting through what makes most sense, and presenting a story that weighs information appropriately.

This sounds like what you were wrestling with in your “Food Babe” story.

Yeah, she is a great example of it. I like to be optimistic and understand where people are coming from. But a lot of people are so quick to assume there’s a ton of profiteering going on in health media. It’s true to a point, but people really do believe crazy things—they maybe watched a loved one die, and it changes you; you get scared about what caused it. And the book publishing industry just loves your outsider theory, and would love to crank it up. Suddenly, your personal essay on this turns it into an actual health theory, published along with a diet book and a cookbook.

What do you trust, then, as a media consumer? How can you tell the difference between health reporting and “voices in health media”?

It’s so tough. As a health consumer, I read for a sense of skepticism—but not conspiracy. Some popular science writing really wants to play up theories on, like, the FDA totally lied to us and the Food Pyramid was a huge scam. A story trope is that there’s this thing that’s percolating, and actually we’ve been getting it totally wrong, and actually there’s a simple and elegant solution. It sounds wonderful: Oh, this writer explained a complex thing to me and now it makes sense. We were getting it wrong forever, and now there’s this easy way to change everything. But good science writing is not just constantly turning over conventional wisdom about complex things.

So, that’s not a great answer, but I don’t actually consume a ton of health media, outside of work as a journalist. I read primary sources. Individual writers, like The New Yorker’s longform pieces. Michael Pollan’s piece last week on psychedelics and mental health. Some people at Wired. Some people at the (New York) Times.

Given all this, how do you see yourself as contributing to health media? What is it you’re trying to do?

I want to not be bad. I want to not be contributing to the noise, and to be entertaining. To make things people enjoy. It seems like so many people end up being, like, “I’m the gluten-free guy,” and “I’m the vegetarian guy,” and “I’m the guy into Paleo”—these guys have a one-cent shtick of who they are. I want to tell good stories and to be the person that shows that these things are complex. Not to oversimplify, make false promises, or scare people.

Lots of journalists are leaving the profession these days, willingly or not. Why did you choose to jump into it in 2012, when you came to The Atlantic?

I was in radiology residency and it wasn’t fulfilling for me. I wasn’t happy. I felt very removed from patient care, which is why I got into being physician in the first place. I was doing improv and standup at night, going back and forth, Hollywood to Westwood. That made me a lot happier, making people laugh. A radiology report may be an essential part of someone’s health and wellbeing, but your work is also interchangeable with another radiologist. I wanted something more creative. When came across the health editor job posting, I was looking for way to take a hiatus from medicine.

Do you see a connection between your improv practice and journalism?

One of the fundamental tenants of improv is “yes, and…” It might sound cliché, but it’s really true. And so that comes into writing and editing. You have to say “yes” quickly—this is is going to be a story. You don’t have time to talk it over with a bunch of people or research it or dither around with a bunch of pre-interviews. You have to say, “This is my story,” and ask, “What’s my approach?” An hour later, you post something on the internet. That’s very much how improv works. Also, you have to be constantly listening and have a great eye for details. In scenes, you call back details from the beginning. That’s really what makes the show work, and it’s also the thing that great journalism entails. They notice absurd details—they find the weird thing—and go after it hard.

With “If Our Bodies Could Talk” expanding, where is support coming from? What are the terms of the Aetna sponsorship of the video series?

Aetna sponsored us for awhile, but that was a finite thing that recently ended. The last episode is not sponsored by them. We’re now looking for new sponsorships, but there’s a heavy wall there that keeps me separate from the details. What’s nice about the sponsorship is that they have no say editorially. We used to have a pre-roll model, where viewers had to sit through a commercial; that’s how our video was monetized. So by getting Aetna to sponsor it, we could drop the pre-roll. That to me seemed to get more people to engage. It’s a lot to ask people to sit through a 30-second commercial for a video they have seen none of. It’s also a relatively limiting factor in terms of growing an audience.

Anything else coming up for you in terms of The Atlantic’s health desk?

I’m working on my first magazine feature, which has been an adventure. For all the benefits my knowledge base as a doctor has given me, and the adaptability of my improv, I don’t have that formal background in longform journalism. I’m still picking up what my thing is. There are also live events, which is part of The Atlantic’s model: I moderate them, and I do some speaking. I’ll be at Harvard and Tufts next month. And also I’ve been doing more TV and radio stuff. I think that’s something valuable in journalism—working in different platforms so you can get out of the echo chamber. If you’re doing the same thing all the time, I think you get immune to the sound of your own voice until you start saying things that even you don’t really believe.

There is also some whispering about a podcast thing, which I’d love to get into too. Every medium has a lot going for it. I say yes to everything.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.