A columnist’s parting words of wisdom: Ask more. Learn more. Write less.

In my last regular blog post for Antidote, I’d like to suggest that we be self-aware and self-confident enough as health journalists to ask more, learn more, and write less.

Ask questions about things we don’t understand. And ask questions because our audiences need us to. Journalism can provide a brutal introduction to the working world. As a young reporter, you are expected to learn everything about a topic in hours and provide an accurate and comprehensive view of it soon thereafter. You might even be sent out to cover a shooting or a fire and have to provide real-time updates moments after you arrive on the scene. If you are not confident in your reporting and authoritative in your approach, your work will not be taken seriously by the editors or the outlet, and you can quickly recede into the shadows — or out the door — while another more confident reporter who appears to be more of a “quick study” moves into the camera frame or to the top of the feed.

Journalism is not a place for the meek.

But if you spend time with the best reporters in the business you will hear them asking questions that you think they should not need to ask. Sometimes they are asking because they want a quote with the answer. Sometimes they are asking because they want to see if they get a different answer than something someone else said. Sometimes they legitimately don’t know the answer. And sometimes they are asking the question that they know their audience would want to ask. That’s often the best reason to ask.

You are the eyes and ears of your audience. It is easy to forget that, especially when you are sitting in a cubicle or driving around in your car at midnight trying to find that crime scene. There are thousands — millions even — of people who in some way depend on the health information you are putting together for them. What would they want to know?

Asking basic questions isn’t enough, though. We need to learn. That’s actually quite hard and can take much longer than our visit to the crime scene or the hospital allows.

Learning requires us to admit that we don’t know as much as we think we do. To realize how much I did not know as a health reporter, I needed to leave reporting and go work in health research. I was a little embarrassed.

The deep understanding I thought I had about most health topics was about as shallow as a petri dish. Whether it was basic epidemiology, health system finance, or the various components of clinical care, my knowledge as a reporter was often superficial at best, dangerously naïve at worst.

Instead of telling ourselves that health is not rocket science, maybe we should tell ourselves that it is, in many ways, even more complicated than rocket science. It’s science and engineering and accounting and behavioral dynamics, all depending on the topic you have in front of you that day.

After 15 years as a full-time reporter and eight years working at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, there remain vast areas of health and health care that are mysteries to me. Just this week, I learned about eosinophils, an asthma-related condition well known among respiratory doctors for decades.

Instead of telling ourselves that health is not rocket science, maybe we should tell ourselves that it is, in many ways, even more complicated than rocket science. It’s science and engineering and accounting and behavioral dynamics, all depending on the topic you have in front of you that day.

One of the things that can help you learn more as a reporter is deciding that you can’t learn everything so you should specialize in a few things. There is enough material in most pockets of health and health care that reporters could be mining them for decades. Instead of thinking of “health” as your beat, think about the pieces that you can meaningfully begin to understand fully and go after them aggressively with an open mind and lots of questions. For me early on, it was understanding what was meant by the “standard of care” and how clinical professionals might step outside of it or obliterate it altogether. Just learning how things were supposed to work in clinical care took me years, and even then I was only truly understanding one discipline at a time. I learned a lot about obstetrical care. I learned a lot about radiology. I learned a lot about cardiac surgery. I still managed to know very little about asthma (as noted above).

And that brings me to the last point: write less.

Let’s unclutter our collective minds by writing only about things we really understand.

First, that means asking good questions . Second, it means taking the time to learn a topic. It also means saying no more. Just because something is new to you doesn’t mean it is news. And even when something appears to be new to everyone, you need to know when your own limits may prevent you from adequately developing the story for your audiences.

News outlets are clogged with health stories that aren’t really news. They are based on small studies or press releases with little or no evidence to back them up.

The importance of comprehensive screening exams.

The benefits of coconut water.

The dangers of vaccines.

We can – and do – create confusion simply by writing a headline with a question mark at the end. We insert doubt into our audiences’ understanding of the world simply by repeating bogus information or by inadvertently creating our own misleading information as a result of our lack of understanding. The whole you-can’t-put-toothpaste-back-into-the-tube metaphor applies with a sickening twist when it comes to bad health reporting, because people make life or death decisions based on the information you are putting out. If you feed your audiences garbage, they are going to be more apt to make bad decisions, and you can’t undo the damage with other stories that come out days, months or years down the line.

That brings me back to my long run here at the Antidote blog. One of the biggest reasons I decided to step away from regularly writing for the Center for Health Journalism — although I will still write on occasion — is because my full-time job prevents me from taking the necessary time to explore topics as deeply as readers deserve. I will miss working with all the great people at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism, especially Michelle Levander, an editor-in-chief and project leader that everyone should have the good fortune to have as a guide and mentor, and editor Ryan White, who has both saved me from embarrassment multiple times and made my posts stronger and more informative.

Keep up the good work. You have the ability to help people live longer, healthier lives. Being a journalist is a privilege, and if you treat it like one you will find that you are working on behalf of your audience more and your self less.

Every word counts.

[Photo by Nicolas Alejandro via Flickr.]

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