The Association of Health Care Journalists, which is based in the US but has members across the globe, offers a useful service to members that I thought may be of interest to Croakey readers.

Members who are researching stories often put out calls to colleagues via the AHCJ listserv for suggestions about useful contacts or story ideas.

I’ve been impressed by the readiness of members to share sources and information, expecially as journalists are not traditionally known as a particularly collaborative bunch.

Can you imagine the health reporters at any Australian newspapers being prepared to signal what stories they’re working on, much less to ask for colleagues’ advice in such a forum?

Perhaps this partly reflects that we work in such a small pond. Still, it’s a shame that we don’t do this, as the level of discussion on the AHCJ listserv is often impressive and must improve the quality of stories.

For example, one American journalist recently put out a call for suggestions for a story being planned on “significant cardiovascular  breakthroughs/advances in diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of CVD and its risk factors, such as hypertension, high cholesterol or obesity”, in the lead-up to new treatment guidelines expected to be released by the American Heart Association in February.

A senior health journalist, Andrew Holtz, responded in some detail to the request, suggesting that the reporter take a broader public health angle, rather than simply medicalising the story.

Holtz has given approval for his comments to be published below, although he points out that his suggestions were made quickly and were not exhaustively checked out.

Even so, I think his comments are worth sharing more broadly – perhaps some Australian journalists may be interested in following up some of his suggestions…

Some ideas for useful stories on cardiovascular health
Andrew Holtz writes:

Do people (other than heart docs and the like) want to know “what cardiovascular advance happened this year”… or is their basic desire really to know “what’s new or important that might affect my (heart or other aspect of) health”?

Sure, we are in the news biz… so it’s not enough to just repeat the basic advice to eat better and be more active. But if you expand your perspective from the narrow focus on medical interventions (that tend to be of limited relevance to people who don’t happened to have a specific condition), you’ll find studies, policies and events that relate to health in a way that connects directly to the daily lives of many more people.

If you need to restrict yourself to heart-related topics… one idea for a story this year is to check on the Healthy People 2010 goals that are heart-related.

This link takes you to the Heart Disease & Stroke page.

How are we doing on smoking? (progress seems to be stalling and there is more talk about whether the people who still smoke are somehow different from those who have quit [or not started] in recent years, so different approaches may be needed)

How about obesity and diabetes? Which areas in the country are doing better or worse and what explanations are there? (Do your readers/audiences know that city dwellers tend to be trimmer than rural residents? and why?)

How has the recession affected heart health? (It seems that surgical procedures are down. And probably more people are dropping their meds. Both related to losses of jobs and insurance. Is the cutback in medical interventions reflected in heart disease outcomes? And if not, what would that say about what the biggest influences on heart health really are?)

Earlier this month, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demoted stroke from being the 3rd leading cause of death in the US to #4 (based on 2008 numbers). That change offers a news hook to look at broad trends. See the report and the news release.

Searching journals such as the American Journal of Public Health can produce items that you might not find in the Journal of the American Medical Association, New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American College of Cardiology etc. For instance, a report in June documented an inverse association between local health department budgets and cardiovascular health.

So a news hook might be… how might state and local cuts to local health department budgets affect rates of heart disease in your community?

E-cigarettes have been a hot topic this year, too… with several states banning certain marketing. There’s a smoking-related news hook.

And so on…

One further thought… the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology and the like are great sources of info on certain medical interventions.

However, while they have a basic understanding that smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyles, etc. produce a lot of patients for their members… they tend to be rather uninformed about the evidence on changing human behavior or how social, economic, political, built environment and other forces influence health… and specifically who gets sick and who doesn’t.

So try expanding your outreach to the CDC, American Public Health Association and groups like Active Living By Design that have expertise in human behavior and social determinants of health to find tips that go beyond the same-old drug and device stuff.


Post Script: In further emails to Croakey, Holtz agrees that the listserv is one of the most useful aspects of AHCJ membership.

He says:

It’s a way for us to not only share tips, but discuss and model the journalism standards to which we aspire. There is now a Europe section on the AHCJ web site, including a Euro-centric listserv: In principle, there could certainly be a similar Australian or Asia-Pacific section, if enough members are interested. And of course, Australian members can also use the main AHCJ listserv for discussions specific to your area, just as members post items now that are specific to a particular sector of health or medicine or a particular state or region.

As to my suggestion that US journalists seem to be more sharing than those in Australia, Holtz comments:

…your intro may make US journalists appear more magnanimous than we really are. I think the sharing that occurs on the AHCJ listserv is between people who don’t compete against each other… such as local reporters in different markets… or trade newsletter reporters sharing with daily newspaper reporters, etc. I don’t think you’ll see reporters at national news organizations tipping their hand on the AHCJ listserv. And the same goes for local reporters working on a story that they don’t want their cross-town competitors to know about before it runs.

If I had to characterize the typical exchange of this sort… the queries often come from relative newcomers to the health beat at smaller news outlets or freelance journalists working on magazine or other feature assignments that don’t involve investigations or the like… and then the advice tends to come from more experienced members who are just pointing to stories they have already run (so they aren’t giving anything away) and those who (like me) aren’t working the daily news beat anymore, and so don’t have to worry about giving up a competitive edge.

That said… there is indeed a lot that working journalists on the health beat can share about how to approach stories and avoid common pitfalls and resist marketing pitches… things that help us do better, without giving away any hot news leads we’re working.

One other motivation for sharing that I think may come into play (it certainly factors into my attitude)… many of us have had the experience of being assigned stories or angles we don’t think are the best way to go, simply because some other news outlet did the story and now our editors want the same thing… so if we help other reporters do a better job, then we are less likely to be asked to chase a story that we don’t really think should have been done that way in the first place.

Indeed. It has often struck Croakey that one of the main roles of a specialist health/medical reporter is to act as a gatekeeper in trying to keep the crap stories out of the news.