Great Reporting Tips from a ‘Study’ of Studies

reportingI came across a spectacular discussion about health journalism — specifically all those studies you constantly hear about — on the National Geographic blog by Virginia Hughes. In it, she and some others on Twitter discuss the troubling preponderance of uninformed stories about new health findings, particularly stories that tend to trump up the importance of tiny results from tiny studies that might not even be that well-designed, just because consumers love health stories (even moreso when the studies trumpet, say, the benefits of wine). Definitely check out the whole discussion, but I wanted to point out that even for us non-health reporters, there are some good lessons here:

1. Be cautious with any study, poll, or survey. Yes, they’re fun, and thanks to computers, super-easy to do now. But particularly if the results can alter how people approach their lives, you’ve got to make sure you trust the source and the sampling. It’s so easy to report study results because, journalistically, we’re off the hook: As long as we report the results right, we’ve technically done our job, right? We have said to readers, “Here are results of a study that was done.” We are correct. But the major thing missing from this kind of reporting, as this discussion points out, is smart analysis and context — two things that, in a perfect world, would also be journalists’ job.

2. Fewer stories means better stories. This one’s for the editors out there. It’s so hard not to jump on everything these days, given the competition for breaking news on the Internet, but another ideal function for journalists is as gatekeepers: We could actually use our brains to decide, “Nah, not this one.” Or even: Let’s wait until other studies confirm this and write a bigger, deeper, more informed piece that really means something to readers. Crazy, I know. But writers like writing those stories way more than the everyday bullshit story chasing, and for good reason. We like to write things that truly matter. We’re crazy like that.

3. Having a “beat” is a good thing. There’s a reason we all tend to specialize in a certain kind of writing. As an expert in television, I know much faster, and with much more confidence, whether something is truly new and worth covering; I know how to give it context; I know whom to call for the right answers; and I usually even know, pretty reliably, which editor requests are gettable and which are pie-in-the-sky ludicrous. (Yes, I usually have to make the call anyway to prove it, but I’m almost always right.) I’m very interested in other topics, like yoga and wine and food and health and meditation, but I rarely write about them because they’re not my true expertise. I do a lot of yoga, but someone somewhere has instincts that I don’t about whether a new yoga study is interesting or why a new trend in yoga is worth covering. I always wondered why they didn’t cover basic beat reporting in college. It would be a great class in J-school. (And some may have it, but Northwestern, for all of its other wonderful features, did not when I was there.)

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