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Year : 2021  |  Volume : 14  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 357-358  

Health journalism: A challenging paradigm

1 Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, Kolkata, West Bengal, India
2 Urban Health Unit and Training Centre, All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, Kolkata, West Bengal, India
3 Rural Health Unit and Training Centre, All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, Kolkata, West Bengal, India

Date of Submission27-Jan-2020
Date of Decision04-Jun-2020
Date of Acceptance07-Jul-2020
Date of Web Publication22-Feb-2021

Correspondence Address:
Sweety Suman Jha
Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, 110 C.R Avenue, Kolkata-73, West Bengal
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/mjdrdypu.mjdrdypu_28_20

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How to cite this article:
Paul B, Jha SS, Dasgupta A, Bandyopadhyay L, Mandal S. Health journalism: A challenging paradigm. Med J DY Patil Vidyapeeth 2021;14:357-8

How to cite this URL:
Paul B, Jha SS, Dasgupta A, Bandyopadhyay L, Mandal S. Health journalism: A challenging paradigm. Med J DY Patil Vidyapeeth [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 Jun 25];14:357-8. Available from: https://www.mjdrdypv.org/text.asp?2021/14/3/357/309950

Dear Sir,

Health journalism is the dissemination of medical and health information and related subjects in the media. The heterogeneous domains of health journalism are reporting of health news,[1] medical research and its publication, and health policies, programs, and their criticisms[2] involving both print and digital media. Health journalism does not only contribute in influencing human health-related behavior, but also imparts a huge impact on global public health scenario. Inadequate or misleading reporting constitutes a considerable public health threat.

However, too many sources of health information coupled with political, economic, cultural, and security censors over communicating the health news lead to inaccurate reporting that has the potential to jeopardize individual health and lead to harmful health policies.[3] Voss M in the study conducted among journalists in the Midwestern U.S. states reported that about one-third of the journalists acknowledged that understanding the complexities of health issues and interpreting health statistics were often or nearly always difficult to do.[4] Veloudaki et al. in their study conducted among European journalists in 2014 reported many challenges of reporting health news, which include low willingness on the part of health authorities to render health information or to meet the press, problems of statistical interpretation, and lack of medical training.[5] With this background, this letter aims to draw the attention of readers regarding some pertinent challenges related to health journalism.

  Interpreting Medical Language: The Challenge Top

Difficulty in translating medical documents, interpreting special terms and expressions used by medical experts, lack of competence to identify sources for reliable medical information, unwillingness/nonavailability of experts for verification of health-related news, and authorities speaking in nontransparent language add up to the difficulties faced by journalists to authenticate their findings while writing medical news. In a study conducted by Keshvari et al. among all health news reporters in Isfahan, it was observed that 65% of journalists had no special training on health reporting and 35% were unable to understand the health issues.[3]

  Dilemma of Reporting News from Medical Industry Top

Journalists who cover the medical industry face a serious dilemma as the line between news reporting and marketing tends to blur very quickly, if not handled carefully. Jacobs T addressed three common practices where reporters and editors face potential conflicts of interest: accepting industry-sponsored awards; participating in industry-sponsored educational programs; and relying too heavily on industry-supplied sources.[6]

  Physician-Journalist: Double-Edged Sword Top

Physician-journalists spend their working lives balancing the ethical requirements of two professions that often have competing goals. The Hippocratic Oath mandates that physicians “do no harm or injustice” to their patients and “keep secret” what they “see or hear in the lives” of their patients. The conflicts arise when physicians use their patients as subjects for stories. Using one's own patient in a story raises the issue of exploitation even if the patient consents to be featured or interviewed.[7] Patients might fear that refusing a physician-journalist's request shall invite a denial of services or negatively affect the professional relationship.[7]

  Inaccurate Health Research Reporting: The Perils Top

Inaccurate news reporting can lead to unrealistic expectations in the public, generate false hopes and fears, add up to their treatment decision-making dilemmas, and compel policymakers to adopt inefficient or even health-threatening rules and regulations.[3] For example, reporting of incidental minor events following vaccination in an exaggerated manner may lead to failure of mass vaccination program. Schwitzer, in a podcast, described how people could be misled by media messages, for example, a man with a brain tumor believed from a company news release that a drug not yet ready for human use could save him.[8] In this context, responsible media coverage of health research forms the core of reliability in health journalism.

  Training and Responsibility: Keys to Overcome the Challenges Top

Members of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) believe that journalists have a special responsibility in covering health and medical news.[9] Health-care journalists are bound by professional standards of truth, accuracy, and context in every report.[9] To achieve this, health journalists should be vigilant in selecting sources, investigate and report possible links between sources of information and those who promote a new idea or therapy, understand the process of medical research in order to report accurately, be judicious in the use of television library or file footage, avoid vague and sensational language, quantify the magnitude of the benefit or the risk in the story, etc.[9]

Very few universities across the world offer postgraduate diploma/degree courses in health journalism. As health journalists have the immense potential to bridge the gap between health professionals and common man, therefore specialized training would help them to have an in-depth insight into what they write, in a meaningful manner. It would also help them to interpret medical research, judge the quality of medical evidence before reporting, and generate accurate, complete, and balanced media message. Various online platforms are available which provide resources for effective health communication to mass media.[10]

Last but not the least, the development of comprehensive ethical guidelines for health journalism and proactive roles of professional regulatory bodies (journalism organization) are some of the initiatives that would go a long way to embark on a fact-based approach to health journalism without violating journalist's freedom of expression.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Leask J, Hooker C, King C. Media coverage of health issues and how to work more effectively with journalists: A qualitative study. BMC Public Health 2010;10:535.  Back to cited text no. 1
Schwitzer G. How do US journalists cover treatments, tests, products, and procedures? An evaluation of 500 stories. PLoS Med 2008;5:e95.  Back to cited text no. 2
Keshvari M, Yamani N, Adibi P, Shahnazi H. Health Journalism: Health Reporting Status and Challenges. Iran J Nurs Midwifery Res 2018;23:14-7.  Back to cited text no. 3
Voss M. Checking the pulse: Midwestern reporters' opinions on their ability to report health care news. Am J Public Health 2002;92:1158-60.  Back to cited text no. 4
Veloudaki A, Zota D, Karnaki P, Petralias A, Papasaranti ES, Spyridis I, et al. Reporting health in Europe: Situation and needs. J Communicat Healthcare 2014;7:158-70.  Back to cited text no. 5
Jacobs T. Medical Journalists Face Ethical Challenges. Pacific Standard. Available from: https://psmag.com/social-justice/medical-journalists-face-ethical-challenges-4106. [Last accessed on 2020 Apr 01].  Back to cited text no. 6
Roles S. Virtual Mentor American Medical Association Journal of Ethics July 2011, Volume 13, Number 7: 417-520. Physician-Authors. Virtual Mentor 2011;13:417.  Back to cited text no. 7
World Health Organization. Campaigning for a Fact-Based Approach to Health Journalism. World Health Organization. Available from: http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/95/4/17-030417/en/. [Last accessed on 2020 Apr 01].  Back to cited text no. 8
Schwitzer G. A Statement of Principles for Health Care Journalists. The American Journal of Bioethics 2004;4:W9-13. DOI: 10.1080/15265160490908086. Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15265160490908086?journalCode=uajb20. [Last accessed on 2019 Jul 02].  Back to cited text no. 9
Science Media Centre. Available from: https://www.sciencemediacentre.org/. [Last accessed on 2020 May 10].  Back to cited text no. 10


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