Making Health News Matter
Reporters want to know their stories make a difference – as do people in health care. But where is the most effective point of intersection for the two professions?
It is when the important story finds the ears of the policy makers, according to University of Florida Journalism Professor Kim Walsh-Childers.
“Most research looks at how health news affects individuals – but there are so many obstacles to consumers even hearing about important health stories, much less acting on them,” Walsh-Childers says. “At the same time, public health officials may be stymied in getting out important facts regarding dynamics that can affect health policy.”
But there is another intersection where stories are very effective, she says.
Walsh-Childers, who has taught at the University of Florida since 1990 and wrote “Mass Media and Health: Examining Media Impact on Individuals and the Health Environment," recently spoke at the UNM Health Sciences Center on how media influences public health policy.
“We know from research that individuals get most of their information about health policy through the news media – instead of through a doctor or other individuals,” she says. “It is not that journalists tell people what to think but that the media – through its framing of questions and context – tells people what to think about.”
Policy makers know that, she adds. “They want to hear about what the public is thinking. Researchers have found that direct interaction with journalism – even before a story comes out and even if it is never published, will influence policy makers,” she says.
A number of other factors also help. Are there follow-ups to the original stories? Is there organized opposition to the findings? Are other areas of the country also attacking the problem with any success?
“People are excited when they hear about solutions,” said Walsh-Childers. “It can be empowering to be able to argue, ‘We know what we are doing now isn’t working, so why don’t we try something that someone else tried that met with success?’”