Beats Lead To Higher-Quality Reporting


Specialized journalists produce higher-quality stories, at least when health reporting is concerned, a new study says.

There’s a lot of debate in the journalism world lately about whether reporting a regular beat makes you blind or stagnant, and some news organizations, like the Daily Caller have done away with beats (at least for now). But in many cases, beat reporters have a greater depth of knowledge than a generalist, and the new study in PLoS Medicine confirms this.

Researchers studied more than 1,000 medical news articles published in Australia over five years and separated them into one of six categories:

1. No byline: All articles that did not identify authors
2. General journalist: A Google search on the author’s name revealed no reporting specialty
3. Overseas media: Story imported from an overseas media outlet (e.g., New York Times)
4. News organizations: Story bought from a news syndicate, such as Associated Press or Reuters
5. Health journalist: A Google search identified the author as being a “health,” “medical,” or “science” reporter
6. Specialist health journalist: A Health Journalist subcategory in which the journalist had 10 or more stories posted on the Media Doctor web site [an independent web site monitoring news reporting in Australia] during the period of the study.

Independent reviewers analyzed the stories, looking for factors like: did the article describe the potential side effects of the new treatment or medicine? Was the article simply a rewritten press release?

In aggregate, articles written by “specialized health journalists” scored the highest. Wire service articles varied in quality: “AP achieved fairly high and consistent ratings, whereas AFP had significantly lower average scores.”

Where do we go from here? The authors suggest that journalists should receive training in the scientific method or that newspapers should make sure to hire more health journalists, but concede that “these suggestions comes at a cost, which may be substantial and unsustainable for the foreseeable future.” The other option is to ensure that researchers and funders avoid exaggeration in their press releases: “The intention has to be promotion of the findings of good science, not self-promotion by researchers, sponsors, institutions, or journals, which all stand to benefit from media coverage. The public deserves to be well-informed about the research it funds. While we may not be able to directly influence which journalist writes health stories, researchers can make it easier for less-experienced journalists to do a good job.”

Frankly, we liked the “hire more journalists” solution much better.

photo: a.drian