Thursday, January 8, 2009

My soft spot: Healthcare journalism

With all the current discussion regarding Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent, as the nominee for Surgeon General under President-elect Barack Obama, I thought I'd offer a glimpse into my own history for the perspective I'm coming from regarding healthcare and journalism.

In the fall of 1995, I was a young and idealistic student at Sonoma State University and part of Project Censored. Each week we received a stack of paper news media reports to review and match against selection criteria, then discussed them the following week to see if further research (mostly on the Nexis database in the library which contained records of news stories for journalists, quite different from what LexisNexis is now) would be justified to forward it to the much smaller batch of articles a national panel of journalism experts would review & vote to be one of the top 25 underreported stories of the year. The exact criteria and methodology of review have since changed, although so has the news media and the accessibility of information in ways I don't think we could even comprehend over 13 years ago. I was the last class with founder Carl Jensen & am no longer too familiar with the direction Project Censored (now under the Sociology department instead of Communication Studies) has gone since then.

The often-cited 2000 To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System report about medical errors being the 3rd highest killer in the United States? Old news to me by 5 years at that point. Two articles that ended up being combined into one and voted #12 for the spring 1996 book (1995 news stories) were in my article stacks: 180,000 Patients Die Annually From Treatment in Hospitals, based in part on a July 1995 JAMA adverse drug events (ADE) study. I apologize for the typos/funky wording in that HTML copy which may be from an optical character resolution (OCR) scan that wasn't post-edited well. I guarantee I used proper grammar in all text I wrote above my name. Can you see my writing style there? I still can. I used way too many commas in my youth and now I only use slightly too many... right? I remember balking at the emphasis on the names and careers of individuals in Chicago but being overridden by higher ups who wanted the personal touch in there.

Investigative journalism and librarianship are not all that far removed in the ability to research with ruthless efficiency under tight deadlines. Where there is a drastic difference between the fields is the pressure in journalism to not have your corporate owners, board members and advertisers look bad and lose revenue as a result of your research. For medical librarians (or any specialization), think about the amount of time you have personally invested in learning the medical and health care field, the information needs in it, and the specialized tools of the trade to be an effective researcher there. Journalists, even those with an MD or focused on health issues, do not usually have such background training nor much time or comprehensive access to the information sources we librarians do. Industry deregulation and the rate of media mergers that was a concern in the 1990s is eclipsed by the extent of the corporate media empires today.

This is why I can't offer an opinion about Dr. Gupta; I never watch CNN. It is hurting greatly in this economy but we always have and will continue to subscribe to a daily & Sunday print newspaper, The Seattle Times, from the independent and family-owned Seattle Times Company. They did an excellent job of researching methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in the state of Washington that led to the Department of Health announcing they would track MRSA rates as I mentioned in November. It's no longer common to see investigative journalism stories in corporate media since it takes a substantial amount of time and money to do the research for them... and you must also watch your back. This is why I hope people will continue to understand the value in and support independent media sources. They are truly better for our health!