Improve health journalism to improve consumer knowledge and decisions

Gary Schwitzer is Publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, where he and his team grade daily health news coverage. He works to improve health journalism with the goal of improving consumer knowledge and decision-making. He was the founding editor-in-chief of the MayoClinic.com site. While his guest lecture at Web Strategies for Health Communication was on health news reporting, I realized that his review criteria seemed equally applicable to any health content and asked him if he agreed.

LG: You critique health news stories and provide guidelines for health journalists; do your guidelines apply to all health writing using the web and social media?

GS:  I think our ten criteria could be applied to any form of health communication, perhaps including one’s interaction with one’s own caregiver.  They may be even more helpful or relevant for health writing on the web or in social media, where standards may sometimes dip a bit.

LG: Do you have recommendations about how to create titles that accurately reflect content yet are enticing? Looking at recent titles of articles you rated, some are descriptive but some are more sensationalistic, almost what you would expect to see on the cover of Cosmo.

GS:  We often see solid reporting that is undercut by a sensational headline.  Good journalism, good writing, good communication doesn’t need the sensational title or headline to “sell” it.  In TV news, for example, it’s not only the headline that matters but the “tease,” the promotion, the visuals, the introduction.  Someone with a publishing concern must take responsibility for the total package of what is communicated.

LG: What about how to write accurate yet enticing, snippets of articles? This is important when the entire text doesn’t appear on a home page and is increasingly important in social media when the number of characters may be limited.

GS: It is possible to convey accurately with balance and with relative completeness even in TV news or in a web “abstract” or in social media.  Of course, with the latter, the use of links to flesh out the “completeness” is not only possible but desirable.  I learned how to do a pretty good job even within the constraints of TV news during my career and am now trying to learn to do so even with the 140-character constraints of Twitter.

LG: What advice do you have for health communicators who are creating web or social media content?

GS:  Content is still king.  Substance over flash.  Steak over sizzle.  There is a tremendous responsibility to get things right on these vital health and health care topics.  Increasingly, I see the value and importance of being correct – perhaps at the expense of not being first.  We need to understand that there is true harm that can be done with inaccurate, imbalanced, incomplete communication on health care topics. Our first and greatest responsibility is to our readers – not to the perceived style demands of our medium or format within which we work.

Lisa Gualtieri is Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Health Communication Program at Tufts University School of Medicine and blogs at her self-titled site, Lisa Neal Gualtieri.

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