Shaping The News How Science And Medical Journalists Select Stories And Sources

How do science and medical journalists select what stories to cover and shape it into news? Often, they turn to familiar sources: the professional journals.

As sociologist Peter Conrad of Brandeis University has pointed out, science and medical journalists tend to focus on a few journals, and these are overwhelmingly represented in the news: Science, Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) , the Journal of the American Medical Association {JAMA), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nature Genetics, and The Lancet (Conrad, forthcoming). For example, in a 1995 study of the press coverage of the link between alcohol and breast cancer over a 13-year period, 88% of the news stories came from studies reported in JAMA or NEJM (Houn etal, 1995).

There are a couple of reasons for this pack journalism. First, science reporters believe these journals, which are desirable places to be published on the part of researchers and have reputation for rigorous peer review, usually publish the most important research. A less benign reason is competition. News is not merely what is important or novel—it is also what one's competitors are writing about.

An increasingly slick effort by journals to package the news by sending out engaging self-promotional news digests with lay-language summaries of upcoming stories also encourages running with the pack.

According to National Public Radio science reporter Richard Harris, Nature started the trend in the mid-to-late 1980s, as a way of getting more play in the US press (Harris, 1997). Not to be left out, Science started its own promoting of upcoming articles, and others also jumped on the bandwagon. JAMA, for example, sends out a press package each week, including video news releases for television reporters, highlighting stories that are often given plenty of ink and air time.

On the plus side, such advance promotion gives reporters an opportunity to prepare such stories with greater care. But it is also not surprising that many science writers rely on the journals' own publicity machines for stories because deadline pressures make a predictable source of story ideas very attractive.

Science reporters also shape news coverage of genetics by who they choose to interview and quote in their coverage of a news story. People who are well-known in a given area often are quoted because their opinion appears to add a voice of authority—a self-perpetuating process. Frequently quoted in the press, they become even better known and more sought-after by reporters.

In other cases, experts who make time for reporters, who explain things clearly without jargon or endless qualifiers, who are reliable providers of colorful quotes or sound bites, get more than their Warhol unit, or 15 minutes of fame.

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