Taking the pulse of health journalism 

Workshop invites experts and public to discuss how our well-being is being reported

By Russ Cooper

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. But in the veritable orchard of treatments and cures being researched today, does the media have the understanding to weed out those with worms?

On Nov. 28, the departments of Exercise Science and Journalism presented Is Good Health Reporting an Oxymoron?, a day-long workshop inviting students, teachers and curious individuals to take a closer look at how health research is reported in the media. The conference represented a unique collaboration between Brian Gabrial of the Journalism Department and Simon Bacon of the Exercise Science Department.

In the morning presentations, much of the tone was set by an understated guidance from panelists to students interested in health reporting.

Alan Cassels, co-author of Selling Sickness: How the World's Biggest Pharmaceutical Companies are Turning us all into Patients and part of the School of Health Information Sciences at the University of Victoria, gave a heads-up to burgeoning health reporters to closely examine private sources of research. Cassels emphasized questioning sources and their funding.

"You don't ask researchers if they think their work is good. It's like being a judge in a beauty contest when your kids are in it," he said.

André Picard, author of several books and one of four health reporters at the Globe and Mail, outlined the special dichotomy between research scientists and media. His job, he explained, is that of a translator. "It's a special relationship between media and scientists – both speak different languages the other doesn't understand," said Picard. "It's my job to make the information accessible."

Making information accessible was exactly what CJAD personality and director of McGill's Office of Science and Society Joe Schwarcz did in his speech. The media-savvy 'Dr. Joe' imparted relevant information to the crowd using magic tricks and colourful personal anecdotes (everything from licking golf balls to Miss Piggy's polyurethane frame) to cover topics including the often disjointed flow of information from lab to audiences, communication pitfalls and the danger of misinformation in health reporting.

All jesting aside, Schwarcz' sinsight and wisdom trumped his showy presentation. "There's a responsibility of the public to educate themselves," he said. "We have to teach the public not what to think, but how to think."

Rounding out the panelists was international press attaché for Uuniversité de Montréal Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins [BA 97]. Without hesitation, Desjardins made it known he didn't think good health reporting was an oxymoron. However, "Research findings are often overhyped by publicists, and media and the public can often be misled," he said. "Reporters are storytellers. Publicists are story sellers," he said.

The morning's discussions provided many ideas for about sixty people to gather in an intimate, café-style discussion. Sitting in clusters around tables, participants exchanged ideas about about Canadian health journalism for half an hour, then changed tables twice, adding to insights from previous conversations. At the end of the day, each table host presented their overall diagnosis of the situation and proffered possible solutions.

"I thought it was wonderful that we could create a space where journalists, scientists, students and a diversity of others could hammer out what was on their mind over the direction of health journalism in Canada," said workshop co-ordinator David Secko (see story).

The world café approach to the deliberations was a hit with participants, he said.
"Some of the feedback was that the day was too short," Secko said. "I don't often hear that after an eight-hour workshop."

(With files from Wendy Smith)


Concordia University