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Editing Health Stories: What You Need to Know

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Editing Health Stories: What You Need to Know

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The day I started as deputy Health/Science editor at The Boston Globe, I had been a reporter for 12 years and an editor for nearly three, but I'd only written one health story, and science had been the bane of my academic career.

Now, seven years later, I'm totally hooked, I actually understand the stuff (well, lots of it) and I wish I'd tuned in earlier. Remembering the beginning of that transition, I think there are five key things anyone in a similar situation should be told:

1. Don't stress about what you don't know.

As an editor at a general interest publication, you might be editing a diet story one day and a story about black holes, human evolution or heart attacks the next. No one can be an expert in every topic from rocket science to brain surgery, so don't worry about it. If you've had a phobia about math since grade school, that's fine, because most of your readers/viewers/listeners do, too.

The corollary to this is that it's okay to sound stupid when talking to scientists, doctors or your own reporters. If you don't get it, most of your readers won't either.

Sometimes I worry that the more I understand, the less successful I am at explaining things to readers. I also find that the stupid questions – "how did you do that?" – can elicit the most interesting answers and lead to the best journalism.

In addition to asking lots of questions, I find the best way to learn is to read as much as I can, particularly by studying press releases and other people's journalism. I get most of my news from the New York Times, NPR and the Boston Globe, and an active Twitter feed that leads me to stories in lots of other outlets, including the BBC, the Wall Street Journal, Technology Review, Wired, and USA Today.

2. The biggest challenge of science/medical journalism is deciding what NOT to cover.

Every day as the Globe's deputy Health/Science editor, I had to sift through newly published studies, dozens of emails from PR people, pitches from freelance reporters, ideas from our own reporters and editors, and actual events.

At first I thought everything was a story. Who wouldn't want to know the latest findings about chocolate, cancer risk, and the importance of exercise? I also went through stages where it all seemed irrelevant, boring or unimportant. In the beginning, I was lucky enough to have wise colleagues who helped me choose. Slowly, over time, I learned how to judge whether a study was worth getting excited about and how to spot compelling trends.

3. Get some basic training in how to read a study and what the terms mean.

Unless you grew up in a household of physicists and/or doctors, you're probably not that comfortable with scientific research – and you need to be. Behind nearly every great health/science story is a research study or two.

In particular, you need to understand:

  • The different types of research studies, and the fact that double-blind, placebo-controlled studies are the gold standard.
  • The process for drug approval: there are four phases of clinical trials. The vast majority of drugs never make it through the process and even if they do, it'll likely take a decade or more to get them to market.
  • The difference between relative and absolute risk. That's the difference between being told you have 100-times higher risk of getting a disease than most people do, and being told you still have only a 1 in a million chance of getting the disease. I know I would react pretty differently to hearing either of those prognoses.

4. Scientists are from Mars; science journalists are from Venus.

I find many scientists and researchers fascinating, but most of them see the world very differently than I do. They spent seven-plus years developing their expertise in medicine or science and years more using it; I usually get restless after two years on one beat.

And the goals of science and science journalism, while often overlapping, are not the same. Science is basically about the accretion of small pieces of information – no single piece is all that important, but together they eventually form a picture. Journalists want to understand the whole picture, but researchers will often use all sorts of specialized language to explain why there's no picture yet, why his/her view of the picture is better than anyone else's, or why he/she can see a picture now when no one else can.

Our stories can give researchers credibility among peers and neighbors, win funding for future work and be a source of pride – or they can destroy these things. So don't take it personally and don't blame sources too much when they're fussier than a campaign candidate.

I think the best way to better understand scientists and doctors is to spend time with them. If they're not in your social circle, sneak out of the office every week or two to go to lunch or a conference or a local hospital's grand rounds. Understanding how science is done will help you provide more accurate, enlightening coverage.

5.  Great editing is the pretty much the same regardless of topic.

The best editors advocate for their reporters, make stories better and encourage reporters to reach their potential. Science editing is no different. Accuracy, ethics and telling a great story are still paramount.

Clarity is even more crucial than with other topics where confusion won't affect someone's health. For complicated topics, I always insisted on shorter, simpler words. Metaphors are great for explaining complexity. And sometimes the scientist makes a better story than the science.

And don't forget to have fun. For me, editing health/science stories was like going back to school with great teachers and no tests. If you're excited about the stories you're editing, your readers, viewers or listeners will be too.

Karen Weintraub

Karen Weintraub is a freelance health and science writer with 20 years experience in daily journalism, most recently as Deputy Health/Science Editor at The Boston Globe. She writes regularly on consumer health and biotechnology for the Globe, Technology Review.com and EverydayHealth.com. She also teaches in Boston University's Science Journalism graduate program and at the Harvard Extension School, and is writing a book about autism.

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