12. The right postures and tools of the health journalist /
We have now reached the end of our health journalism program.
The time has come to give you some tips on good practices and to provide you with the necessary tools to perform this rich and exciting profession.
All journalists are concerned with these tips, but it applies particularly to this rapidly changing and complex field:
Be curious, stay informed each day through monitoring local and international news.
Use – and overuse – news articles published by medical newspapers around the world, as well as news releases by major global health institutions, such as the World Health Organization.
Also consider using RSS news aggregators, which are very helpful, along with Twitter, to discover opinion leaders.
In the face of this huge amount of continuous news, enhance your critical thinking. Is there any news that seems incorrect? Refer to its source.
A typical example: you read that “according to a study”, a miracle molecule that can treat a specific disease has been discovered. However, if you read the aforementioned study, you will find that the molecule that was discovered is only effective in the laboratory or on mice and that it was not tested on humans at all…
Furthermore, beware of preprints, as these scientific articles have not been peer-reviewed.
When editing an article about scientific studies, it is important to ensure that it meets the criteria of the scientific method, and verbs should be used in the conditional form and to be restricted to the extent and conclusions of the authors of the studies that are often discreet. It is not uncommon for a particular scientific finding to be confirmed or rejected after conducting a rigorous and in-depth subsequent analysis.
In the same context, you have to distinguish between what is real and what the public opinion thinks is real. Also, you have to identify expressive or speculative articles. Remember that science is not an opinion, it is based on proof of hard evidence.
Learn how to recognise snap judgements and how to avoid them. These snap judgements may lead to errors in perception, thinking, evaluation, rationalisation, and judgement.
The best example of this is cultural bias, which is when someone analyses, interprets, and judges matters based on his cultural references. This may lead to poor processing of sensitive health information, such as in the case of sexual and reproductive health.
Also, beware of what is known as ‘The Stork Effect’ that leads to confusion between correlation and causation; it is a common mistake in logical reasoning.
Let us give an example of this: Feeling cold is usually followed by a fever. Can we conclude that feeling cold is what generates the sickness?
Contrary to popular belief, sitting on a public bench that is cold and made of stone, walking with wet socks, or leaving the house after washing the hair are some behaviours that do not lead to catching cold or being sick. Feeling cold is the first symptom of fever.
Also, beware of the ‘white coat effect’: what a journalist or a scientific researcher says is not necessarily correct, and it is not necessarily true that the intention of this reporter or researcher is sincere. Accordingly, the expert you host should be chosen very carefully.
A Nobel Prize-winning researcher in a specific scientific field will not necessarily be useful in other scientific fields.
While meeting an expert do not be afraid of your ignorance of some matters and do not be ashamed of it: ask questions, even if they may seem naive. Tell yourselves that the majority of your readers are in the same situation!
Toutefois, afin de faciliter votre travail quotidien, n’hésitez pas à vous former, notamment à la lecture critique d’articles ou aux statistiques. N’hésitez pas, non plus, à aller chercher des ressources et aides auprès de ses pairs, par exemple par le biais d’associations professionnelles, comme la World Federation of Science Journalists.
For the purposes of facilitating your daily work, do not hesitate to train yourselves, especially through a critical reading of scientific articles or statistical data. Do not hesitate to search for sources and to seek assistance from your peers, for example in professional associations, such as the World Federation of Science Journalists.
There are some tools and methods that will allow you to validate information and news:
- Identify the primary source of the news information and check its nature. Is the source specialised in satirical news? Is it known to follow conspiracy theories?
- Confirm the source of images by doing a reverse Google search.
- Analyse the structure of news information and conduct researches on the available data: names of places, dates, people.
- Analyse the details that accompany news information: for example, are the charts correct? Are the attached numbers correct? What is their source?
- You can also use the work of your fellow fact-finding experts at the following websites: https://hoaxbuster.com/, http://www.hoaxkiller.fr/, https://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/, and AFP Factuel.
Concerning editing: You must get straight to the point and be objective in the terms and expressions that you use. The news information you deal with is usually complex and sometimes raises concerns.
- Use as few subjective adjectives as possible in reports: for example, “fatal, deadly” disease.
- Use pictures very carefully lest you give an inappropriate message.
- When possible, address preventive measures or available treatments: this could make your article less intimidating.
- Don’t forget that statistical analysis are less intimidating compared to narratives about people.
- Avoid using evocative titles and be creative with the presentations.
Finally, field experience: When you ask people to present their testimonies, treat them with dignity, and let them tell their stories. Show sympathy with them and be transparent with them, especially concerning your goals.
Ask them for their approval of how you will address their phrases and words. In the field, always be careful, respect precautions, and do not put yourself in danger.
In conclusion, you may have to tackle difficult topics and see shocking things. Be aware of this, and don’t hesitate to talk about it or seek help from a psychologist.
Take care of yourself!
A CFI project in partnership with France Médias Monde