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Media plays crucial role in public’s health literacy


The public and health professionals depend on media coverage for accurate and reliable information about new health treatments. According to new research published in today’s PLoS Medicine the value of dedicated and experienced health journalists is paramount.

“Because the issues are often complex, experienced health journalists do a substantially better job than general assignment reporters and have an important role in providing accurate information to patients,” says Dr. David Henry, co-author and president and CEO of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES).

With the rapid changes taking place in media companies in Canada, Australia and the U.S., there is a real risk that experienced health journalists will be lost and this is a threat to health literacy in the public.

The study of 1,337 medical news stories published by the Australian mainstream media between 2004 and 2009 looked at and found:

  • The media can influence health literacy and health seeking behaviours, but few studies have looked at the quality of news stories
  • This report examined whether experienced specialist health reporters write better stories than other categories of journalists
  • The report found that it does matter who writes news stories that cover the benefits and harms of healthcare interventions. Stories written by specialist health journalists working for a single media outlet scored more highly than those written by less experienced writers
  • The findings are important because this source of health literacy is currently under pressure as falling revenues threaten the future of the traditional media

“Media coverage of new treatments is important and must be accurate. The public rely on this and health professionals may hear about them for the first time from the media. The decline of the traditional media is a threat to this important source of information” says Henry.

Citation: Wilson A, Robertson J, McElduff P, Jones A, Henry D (2010) Does It Matter Who Writes Medical News Stories? PLoS Med 7(9): e1000323. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000323



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