MEDIA HEALTH: Media Roundup - News that's just what the doctor ordered

There is no such thing as a fail-safe topic for reporters, but health is an area that consistently delivers solid news that interests the public.

There is no such thing as a fail-safe topic for reporters, but health is an area that consistently delivers solid news that interests the public.

There is no such thing as a fail-safe topic for reporters, but health is an area that consistently delivers solid news that interests the public.

David Ward reports on how media coverage has come almost as far as the medical developments themselves

Media outlets learned long ago they won't go wrong by catering to their audience's self interest, and no topic fits that bill better or more consistently than health. Since the 1950s, surveys have found health and medicine consistently rank among the top topics for journalists and readers.

Thanks in large part to the aging of baby boomers, that trend has grown in recent years. Many people are concerned not only with their own health but also with their elderly parents and young children. Added to this is the rise of managed care, which has driven families to learn all they can, not only about their healthcare plan, but also about the costs and benefits of various types of treatment.

Getting specialized treatment

Media outlets have responded to this need by adding staff and reporting in-depth about the rapidly changing health field. Media ranging from The New York Times to The National Enquirer now have a dedicated reporter or staff covering the field.

National Public Radio, for example, has upwards of a dozen reporters covering health and medicine. The result is that this is something of a golden era for health journalism. 'Compared to 10 years ago, health reporters are much more knowledgeable, much more experienced and much less likely to over-hype,' says Nancy Reuth, president of PResence Euro-RSCG. 'But I think public relations people are getting better in making sure they tell the whole story, which allows the health reporter to put the news in proper perspective.'

In this huge mix there are obviously journalists who stand out both for their visibility and the quality of their coverage. On the print side, the health media elite include Jane Brody and Larry Altman at The New York Times; Tara Parker-Pope, who has taken over while Marilyn Chase is on sabbatical at The Wall Street Journal; Geoffrey Cowley and Claudia Kalb at Newsweek; Pulitzer Prize winner Laurie Garrett at Newsday and Christine Gorman at Time. Wire service standouts include Lauran Neergard with the Associated Press, Carol Smyth and Maggie Fox with Reuters Health.

Broadcast coverage is dominated by 'TV Docs' such as ABC's Tim Johnson, NBC's Bob Arnot and Ian Smith, who does double-duty as both a TV reporter in New York and as a regular columnist for Time magazine. But PR execs say reaching this group usually requires going through a producer first.

Among the standouts are Boston-based ABC VP and medical producer Roger Sergal, who funnels story ideas not just to World News Tonight, Good Morning America and prime time news magazines such as 20/20, but also to news organizations at major affiliates.

Marilyn Castaldi, director of Fleishman-Hillard's health care practice, also stressed looking beyond the traditional media outlets to talk shows such as The View and especially Oprah. 'If there's one outlet for health education anyone would love to be on it's Oprah,' she says. But even other icons of modern media such as Jay Leno and David Letterman are also considered coups. 'We've had clients get mentioned on David Letterman's Top Ten List and you should see how sales and interest grew,' she adds.

Coverage from all angles

And while much of the focus is on national media, local newspapers and especially local TV, broadcasters are fertile ground for health and medical topics. 'All of the local news programs have a lot of time to fill so there's a strong interest in having regular segments that viewers can use,' explains Ogilvy PR's Tom Beall. He says sometimes these stations will use VNRs, but in many cases the story needs to be localized for the market. One organization that has had great success with reaching local TV is Allentown PA-based Medstar Communications, which packages and distributes medical news under the Health Matters banner.

As with any major industry, there are plenty of health and medical journals beyond mass media. Marion Glick, Porter Novelli's VP of media relations, says the Journal of the American Medical Association, Science and UK-based The Lancet and Nature have news sections that are open to new story ideas, though top peer-review publication The New England Journal of Medicine does not take pitches.

Glick adds that trade publications such as Physicians Weekly also have a broad reach and are continually on the lookout for new story ideas.

While there have always been trade publications and newsletters, Castaldi says one recent trend worth noting is the rise of newsletters tied to prestigious medical institutions such as Tufts, Harvard, University of California-Berkeley and the Mayo Clinic. 'These go directly to consumers, but they are also feeders to the popular press,' she says.

It can be argued that while health and medicine came late to the Internet, few fields match in terms of providing content to both journalists and consumers. Among the more popular sites are WebMd and Medscape. But PResence's Reuth stresses some of these sites require a more cautious approach. 'The trick on the Web is you have to make sure they are extremely rigorous in putting the information out, because once it is on the Web it is even less in your control than an offline publication,' she explains.

Like other fields, health-related PR is often a matter of building relationships with journalists. 'You need to know all these folks and the main way to do this is by pitching, but there are also organizations such as the National Association of Science Writers and National Association of Medical Writers that PR people can join,' Glick says.

And finally, no matter how experienced the health journalist, Beall urged health PR execs to take the time to educate reporters on complex issues, even when there's no story on the immediate horizon. Ogilvy PR recently supported a media event in New York that focused on emerging applications for the mapping of the human genome and future treatments. 'The intent was not news per se,' he says. 'But we know that even smart and sensitive reporters don't yet have their land legs as to what are the implications for this and how quickly they will arrive.'


Mainstream publications:

Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report


Morning and nightly news programs, Discovery Health Channel, Dateline, 20/20, National Public Radio

Trade and targeted publications:

Physicians Weekly, Nature, The Lancet, Science, Journal of the American Medical Association

Wire services:

Associated Press, Reuters Health, Bloomberg News


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