BOG GARFIELD: Journalists aren't confounded just by numbers. For 15 years, journalism professor Gary Schwitzer reported health news on television. And he says that's a beat that regularly takes a beating.
GARY SCHWITZER: I would say that watching television health news today has actually become an unhealthy act. It's filled with one-sided, incomplete information, lots of scares at one end of the spectrum, and then breakthroughs at the other end of the spectrum. But I think what I say is true for many stations, not all
BOG GARFIELD: One of the simple problems you identify is simple brevity. There's just not a lot of time devoted to a given story and to deliver it in the kind of context that it deserves, right?
GARY SCHWITZER: Forty-five seconds is the average length of a television health news story. We're not going to get much useful information in 45 seconds.
BOG GARFIELD: But your particular bette noire on all of this is simply the credentials of the people covering the news. I gather you think that a lot of the people out there doing that are simply not up to the task.
GARY SCHWITZER: And I feel for them. I think many of them are thrown into this beat without any special training. They don't need a Ph.D. But it's almost as if we check at the door of covering health stories some of the basic journalism fundamentals that are applied in all other areas of journalism.
BOG GARFIELD: For example?
GARY SCHWITZER: Single-source stories are the rule, not the exception, in health news stories. Single-source stories are a bad idea in any form of journalism. In health news it's malpractice. There are so many vested conflicts of interest among the promulgators of health news and information today, it simply does not suffice to only have one source.
BOG GARFIELD: Now, you have proposed a solution for some of these problems. What is it?
GARY SCHWITZER: Well, I'm glad you emphasized "for some of these problems" because this would not be an answer to all. And I will admit up front that this can turn off a lot of journalists, but I want them to hear me out. I have proposed voluntary certification of only television health news reporters and journalists. These folks could go through certification whereby they would attend workshops or use online modules, so that they could learn about how the FDA looks at new drugs, they could learn how to scrutinize claims and evaluate the quality of evidence presented by sources. They could learn more about the ethical quandaries that arise in health news, I think, more than in any other area of journalism.
BOG GARFIELD: You know, the moment you mention this kind of accreditation, journalists go nuts and say whoa, this is veering awfully close to licensing of journalists. Play devil's advocate for a moment please, and tell me why licensing is an idea that is so reflexively rejected by journalists. And then explain to me why this isn't tantamount to licensing.
GARY SCHWITZER: Well, licensing generally falls into a regime of being mandatory; you aren't allowed to do your job, unless you're licensed. And there are examples of government licensing. That's what makes that a very dangerous and a very bad idea. And that's why that's not what I'm talking about. Certification, on the other hand, generally connotes a voluntary mechanism. You can choose to do this if you want, you can choose not to. Certification tries to imply some standard of quality is met. It would not be foolproof, but it's better than where we are now.
BOG GARFIELD: And, as you've pointed out in some of your pieces, it is not entirely unprecedented, is it?
GARY SCHWITZER: It's not. It may be a stretch, but I don't think so within the world of television, to take a look at what the American Meteorological Society does to certify broadcast meteorologists. You can go on the AMS website and find the now even more rigorous training that certified broadcast meteorologists have to go through to gain this certification. You know, I was at a Bob Dylan concern in town the other night. You may remember, Dylan had a lyric from a song, "You don't need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows." But television stations give more time to weather news and give more attention to the certification of these forecasters than they do to television health news reporters, from whom many Americans get most of their healthcare news and information.
BOG GARFIELD: Well Gary, thank you.
GARY SCHWITZER: You're welcome. Thanks for the time.
BOG GARFIELD: Gary Schwitzer is the director of the Health Journalism graduate program at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He worked in television medical news for 15 years. (MUSIC)