Background: The mass media has enormous potential to influence health-related behaviours and perceptions. Much research has focused on how the media frames health issues. This study sought to explore how journalists in Australia select and shape news on health issues.
Methods: The study involved semi-structured interviews with 16 journalists from major Australian print, radio and television media organisations reporting on avian influenza and pandemic planning. Journalists, including reporters, editors and producers, were interviewed between October 2006 and August 2007. Thematic analysis was used to draw out major lessons for health communicators.
Results: Journalists routinely attempted to balance different, sometimes competing, aims amidst significant operational constraints. They perceived the most trusted sources on health issues to be respected and independent doctors. Specialist health and medical reporters had a more sound technical knowledge, channels to appropriate sources, power within their organisations, and ability to advocate for better quality coverage.
Conclusions: An awareness of how to work with the media is essential for health communicators. This includes understanding journalists' daily routines, being available, providing resources, and building relationships with specialist health reporters.