Here's a thought

by DavalosMcCormack on July 31, 2008

I live a kind of schizophrenic existence. On the one hand I’m a journalist who writes about health issues. On the other hand I also work as a media relations manager at a big city hospital where part of my job entails pitching stories to health journalists, like me! See what I mean about being schizophrenic!
One of the ways I try to pitch an idea is by thinking “how would I – the media relations fella – get me – the health journalist – to do this story.” The sad part is that before I even put finger to keypad I know that in most cases I couldn’t get me to do the story. It would be on its way to the circular file (that’s garbage can to the rest of you) even before I read the third paragraph.

Harsh, absolutely. Unfair, definitely. So why do I keep turning myself down, metaphorically speaking? Because news by its very nature, regardless of whether it’s TV, radio or print, is about what’s new. Reporters are looking for the latest drug, the newest therapy, the first time something has been done.

If you are trying to pitch them on the merits of a story about, say, the Heartmate II, the second generation of implantable heart devices, there’s no interest, even though the device is smaller, better, more effective than the original. It’s the second in the title that kills it. In a sense it’s the Buzz Aldrin of stories. No one cares if you were second on the Moon. After Neil Armstrong you are just a sidebar.

It’s an understandable approach but it’s a poor one from a public health, even individual health perspective, because it places the novel over the commonplace. It assumes that something new is better than what went before. In many cases it isn’t. In some cases it’s a lot worse.

For example, take a new drug. How many times have you heard about a new blockbuster drug that is going to treat diabetes, help cure obesity, fix ailing hearts, only to find out a few years later that not only did it not do a very good job of any of those, but it actually increased your risk of some rather unpleasant side effects, such as death!

Now we have perfectly good ways to treat most of the big health problems in this country. They’re called diet and exercise. The problem is there is nothing new about them. They’re not glamorous. In fact, from a news perspective they’re boring. That’s why coverage of them is limited to a new study every once in a while, showing how exercise is good for the brain or the body or both, how reducing weight reduces you risk of cancer or heart disease.

These are all lovely reminders but they do little to help people with the day-to-day problems encountered in exercising more or eating a healthier diet.

The news media needs to do a better job of the basics, of highlighting simple approaches to making lifestyle changes that work, of following people over the course of several months, charting their ups and downs, successes and failures, as they try to improve their health. And I am as guilty as anyone else because for more than 20 years I was a journalist making these judgments. Maybe we need to be more responsible as readers. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we didn’t depend on people telling us what to do.
We learn from observing others going through the same struggles we are. We learn from seeing how they encounter the same problems as us, and overcome them. But these are complicated matters. We didn’t find ourselves overweight overnight. And we are not going to change things back to where we want them quickly. And certainly not easily.

That’s why the media need to help focus on problems that are not new or glamorous but that are hugely important nonetheless. Constant coverage of things that work; ideas, exercises, strategies, anything, everything. Heck, I’d even welcome using some vacuous celebrity if it meant getting lifestyle coverage back into the news.

Who knows. People might even start paying attention to news again. Horror of horrors, they might even start trusting the media.

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