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The Future of the Public’s Health in the 21st Century
straints of time, brevity, and simplicity, for example, impede the careful documentation, nuanced positions, and caveats that scientists believe are necessary to discuss and present their work. Journalists, on the other hand, often see the use of caveats or qualifications as information that can be dismissed to improve the readability of a story. Furthermore, journalistic efforts to enhance audience interest may violate other traditional scientific norms. For example, to create a human interest angle, journalists may look for personal stories and individual cases, although this may distort research findings that have meaning only in a broader statistical context.
Scientific journals may also contribute to the distortion of research findings. Scientific journals often prepare press releases for the news media to assist them in getting the story right. These attempts to translate research into news can be misleading. Woloshin and Schwartz (2002) reviewed the content of journal press releases and interviewed press officers at nine prominent medical journals. The study found that press releases do not routinely highlight study limitations or the role of industry funding. Formats for presenting data were also found to exaggerate the perceived importance of findings.
Fueling these tensions is the fact that scientists, health care professionals, and policy experts rarely receive training in public communication, and reporters are not well trained in science, medicine, and statistics. Both groups are generally untrained in risk communication.
A recent study (Voss, 2002) highlights reporters’ self-perceptions about their own ability to report health news. The study surveyed reporters and newspapers in five Midwestern states. In response to questions about reporting ability, 49.7 percent of respondents reported it was sometimes easy and sometimes difficult to understand key health issues, and 31 percent found it often or nearly always (2.7 percent) difficult to do. Also, 51.3 percent of respondents reported that it was sometimes easy or sometimes difficult to interpret statistical data, whereas 27.4 percent found it often or nearly always (6.2 percent) difficult. More than three-quarters of respondents (83 percent) reported that they had no training to cover health topics. Similarly, a national survey of journalists and news executives found that only 12 percent of reporters covering health care are viewed as “extremely prepared” and 43 percent are viewed as “prepared” to cover health care issues (Foundation for American Communications, 2002).
To help ease these tensions and to improve the quality of the information delivered to the public, scientists and public health officials as well as journalists and editors should seek opportunities for training. The need for media training is acknowledged in the statement of Al Cross, President of the Society of Professional Journalists, who notes that “training is a good way to meet your public responsibilities” (quoted in Kees, 2002) and in the