Context: Medical issues are widely reported in the mass media. These reports influence the general public, policy makers and health-care professionals. This information should be valid, but is often criticized for being speculative, inaccurate and misleading. An understanding of the obstacles medical reporters meet in their work can guide strategies for improving the informative value of medical journalism.
Objective: To investigate constraints on improving the informative value of medical reports in the mass media and elucidate possible strategies for addressing these.
Design: We reviewed the literature and organized focus groups, a survey of medical journalists in 37 countries, and semi-structured telephone interviews.
Results: We identified nine barriers to improving the informative value of medical journalism: lack of time, space and knowledge; competition for space and audience; difficulties with terminology; problems finding and using sources; problems with editors and commercialism. Lack of time, space and knowledge were the most common obstacles. The importance of different obstacles varied with the type of media and experience. Many health reporters feel that it is difficult to find independent experts willing to assist journalists, and also think that editors need more education in critical appraisal of medical news. Almost all of the respondents agreed that the informative value of their reporting is important. Nearly everyone wanted access to short, reliable and up-to-date background information on various topics available on the Internet. A majority (79%) was interested in participating in a trial to evaluate strategies to overcome identified constraints.
Conclusions: Medical journalists agree that the validity of medical reporting in the mass media is important. A majority acknowledge many constraints. Mutual efforts of health-care professionals and journalists employing a variety of strategies will be needed to address these constraints.