The Fourth Estate of Health and Medicine

Who Will Hold Evidence To Account?

Journalists occupy an important, yet often unacknowledged, role in the health system by providing a dispassionate account of the system’s strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities to the public. It is through journalists that much of the research we scientists and practitioners produce gets communicated to the audiences likely to use them. This fourth estate is also a  place where hard questions can be asked and answered, holding governments, business and the health system itself to account because journalists operate apart from this space, unlike scientists and clinicians. We are at risk of losing this and it’s time to consider what that means for our collective health and wellbeing.

Disrupted Media

The news business is going through a massive upheaval, part of a larger overall disruption in media. Many newspapers are reducing the size of their print offerings, publishing less frequently or ceasing operations altogether.

This reduction in the capacity and size of the fourth estate begs two simple questions: Who will hold health scientists, clinicians, pharmaceutical companies, health product manufacturers, and policy makers to account? and who will tell the stories of science, health and medicine in public?

While we have some activist academics doing great work on influencing broader audiences like policy makers, they are exceptions not the norm. Stanton Glantz, a major tobacco control champion from UCSF who taken to blogging as a means of communicating to professionals and the public directly, is one of these such people. But Stan is atypical and holds a tenured position at a major university, something he’s acknowledged protected him when pursuing issues of evidence withholding from the tobacco companies in the 1990’s and beyond. Many faculty (particularly younger ones) are not this secure and even fewer independently funded scientists are. Academia is changing and not in ways that favour security and stability, which has implications for the kind of stories that get told.

Journalists have traditionally relied on protection from their publisher or producer under the name of journalistic freedom (the fourth estate) as a key pillar of their profession. It’s hard to imagine the Watergate scandal coming to light had Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and the other reporters working for the Washington Post, Time Magazine and New York Times not had the resources, stability and support provided by their newspapers . But what happens when these resources are no longer available or there are no institutions to support journalists in serving as watchdogs to hold people or institutions to account for what they do and don’t do?

Are ‘Monkeys in Coats’ A Healthy Story?

It’s been suggested that the Internet will take care of this. Citizen journalists, armed with camera-laden handsets connected to social media will fill the news gap. For example, it was citizens, not journalists, who first captured the story of Darwin the monkey, dressed in a shearling coat, walking around an Ikea parking lot in Toronto that went viral on a global scale on December 10, 2012. This is great for those interested in simian fashions and retail adventures, but the reason it was captured was because the story was obvious and in the face (or at the ankles) of those who told it. (For those of you not familiar with Toronto, coat-wearing monkeys are not typically seen at shopping centres or anywhere around town for that matter.)

Health and medicine is not the same as monkeys wearing coats (no matter what kind of joke you want to make). There is nuance, debate and reason that requires sustained attention and focus that someone with an iPhone and Twitter account is less likely to convey. Reasoned arguments for citizen journalism’s potential suggest it can complement the work of traditional journalism, not replace it. Yet, is this belief in one form (citizen journalism) undermining support for the other (traditional journalism) and serving as a fix that ultimately fails? If free-and-easy content is available, how likely are publishers willing to pay for professional work? Particularly if the choice of stories of one group (e.g., monkeys in coats) are more likely to garner the kind of attention that drives advertising than that of another (e.g., health care financing). Only one of these stories will impact our collective health.

Why does this matter? Trained journalists are required to be good communicators to a broad audience, scientists are not. Clinicians are slightly better, but decades of research has shown it is still highly problematic across areas of practice. This will not be solved overnight, if at all. Scientists and clinicians have told me they are already burdened with enough job expectations and adding knowledge translation skills to that list is asking too much.

As I have argued previously, there is a valued place for synthetics in research: those are who are good at taking ideas and weaving them together into an accessible narrative. Journalists are ideally suited to play or support this role. They do the job that many scientists can’t or won’t do and have better to tools, skills and strategies to do it. They write in a style that is suited to broad audiences in a way that suit those audiences’ needs, not what funders, disciplinary traditions, universities, or scientific peers demand (without evidence that those methods of communication are effective). There are reasons why journalists assess the reach of their work in the thousands and social scientists in the dozens (by citations in their field of practice).

Going Deeper to See Clearer

Although we have more information about health available to us than ever before, this may not be healthy for patients. The potential for those uninformed about medical diagnostics, evidence, and the nature of health itself to make poor choices based on incomplete, incorrect or overwhelming information is high. Further, without the kind of dispassionate examination of evidence in a synthetic manner that is tied to the way in which that evidence is expressed in the world through public opinion, policy making and healthcare practices, we lose a major accountability mechanism and means of informing public discourse.

In October I co-delivered a workshop on health evidence for students at the University of Toronto with the 2012 Hancock Lecturer and journalist Julia Belluz. Julia writes the Science-ish blog for Macleans Magazine and is an Associate Editor with the Medical Post. Julia`s lecture was on the role that social media plays in our health system and how its power to leverage the attention of the masses — for good and ill — is shaping the public understanding of health and medicine often in the absence of evidence for effects of conditions, processes, and practice. The lecture is summarized online on Science-ish beginning here.

Reading through the lecture notes one sees a depth of study that would be unlikely to be found anywhere within the formal health system. The reasons are that it blends evidence with commentary, observation with carefully selected sources, and takes a perspective that seeks to inform a wide, not narrow audience in both practical and intellectually stimulating ways. Taken together, this is a collection of activities that are not within the scope of practice for scientists and practitioners. There are reasons why the greatest contributors to public discourse on many scientific issues has come from journalists, not the scientists who generate the research. They tell the story better.

Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Johnson, Mitch Waldrop, Julia Belluz, Andre Picard and others are a big part of the reasons most of the those who vote to support funding of science, who donate to research-related causes, and fight for policies to keep us healthy know of the research that backs those ideas up.

Imperfect as journalism is, it serves the public when done with integrity. It’s worth spending some time considering what can be done to support the fourth estate so it supports us.

Photo credit: DBduo Photography on Flickr used under Creative Commons Licence.

2 Comments on “The Fourth Estate of Health and Medicine

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