Medical and Health Journalism Infopool
Who are your readers, listeners, and viewers?
This is the perennial question lingering in the back of every journalist’s mind, regardless of their specialty. Journalists have to answer this question every time they sit down to write. Ideally, they revisit this question periodically to make sure they are still on course and in touch with their audience.
Possibly the most distant group from medical journalists, ironically, consists of scientists and researchers. Typically, these individuals enjoy a buffer from the pressures of the market, especially if they have the support of an institution like a university or benefit from government grants. That being said, even these institutions feel the influence of the ebbs and flows of popular ideas. Grants may increase if a particular subject becomes a hot topic, meaning that more research will be done in those areas. Universities want to position themselves on the cutting edge, again influencing the types of topics researchers look into.
The core of this influence comes from the people in government tasked with making decisions about what to fund. Government policy makers, while not scientists themselves, often have the final word on what areas of study to support. Often, the current political climate will determine how popular write-ups of medical advances are used, but history has shown that this does not deter politicians and other policy makers from harnessing “evidence” from the medical press to support their views.
Drilling down further, medical professionals on the front lines of health care certainly make use of scientific ideas filtered through the popular media. While many people might consider their doctors as the arbitrators of all things medical, the truth is that doctors cannot stay abreast of all the changes happening in medicine. If they tried, they would not have time to practice. They may continue to keep up with what is happening in their particular specialization, but they rely on more easily digestible reports to get an idea of developments in other areas of medicine and science, and this can change, even in a subtle way, the understanding they have of any number of findings. In turn, this can affect their practice.
However, most medical journalists will find themselves communicating directly to the general public. As laymen, these readers tend to be swayed more easily when reading about science. Armed with the knowledge they have gained from medical journalism, members of the public may demand services or medicines they have read about in the press. In this way, a sort of interactive loop begins. You can already see how complex the impact of a scientific idea communicated to a mass audience can become. How and what you write will depend largely on the type of publications you work for and the demographics of their audiences.
Ultimately, your audience will define what makes your writing valuable. More technically minded media consumers will expect concise, knowledgeable pieces that get to the point. They will also expect a certain amount of specialized terminology or jargon. The general public, on the other hand, will need clear explanations with the complicated scientific language somewhat stripped away. In both cases, though, readers require context. As a medical journalist, it is your job to clearly place a study, a phenomenon, or a trend in context relative to established science and other recent developments.