Physicians: Journalists must show responsibility on medical beat

Addressing the field world of medical journalism, experts at the 2014 SEJC in Lafayette discussed the pitfalls of social media, and keeping the public informed of growing medical problems such as mental illness among college students.

“I think there’s more rumors out there now more than ever,” said Dr. Tina Stefanski, M.D., regional director of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, and one of the three panelists. “Outlets like Facebook and Twitter perpetuate more bad information because anybody can just say anything and their friends will believe it. Nobody verifies anything anymore.”

Alongside Stefanski on “The Neglected Health Beat: Filling a Vital Public Need” panel were Dr. Chris Hayes, M.D., medical director for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette student health services, and Elizabeth Hill, a health and medical reporter for KATC-TV3 in Lafayette.

“Take all your medical news with a grain of salt,” Hayes warned during the 75-minute session. “It’s extremely important you do your own homework and consult not just your medical professional, but maybe two or three others.”

Hayes advised members of the audience to heed only the information from trusted sources like the National Institutes of Health, a state department of health or a medical expert.         

“Be mindful,” Hayes warned. “Not everyone with the title of ‘M.D.’ behind their name is legit. There are some people out there who will say or do whatever it takes to sell a product they’re endorsing, or have upper-level pressure to push the latest and greatest thing. It can be tricky to know the difference.”

Hill said medical reporters have a responsibility to be vigilant and cautious with handling their information.

“If you report something wrong, that’s totally on you as the reporter,” she said. “Make sure you do your homework before you meet the interviewee. Make sure you understand the topic before the interview. That way, if that person tells you something you know is wrong, you can correct them or realize, ‘Hey, this person has another agenda here.’”

When the topic turned to medical issues most severely afflicting the college-age populace, Hayes said the traditional sexually transmitted diseases have “taken a back seat to mental illness.”

“In the past, the easy answer was, of course, STDs,” Hayes said. “What I’m seeing more of now is a greater willingness to discuss, and understanding of, these problems by young people. In the past, there was moral baggage or misconstrued societal beliefs that came along with admitting you had a mental problem. You guys are stressed! There’s nothing wrong with admitting that something isn’t quite right.”

Stefanksi elaborated on Hayes’ point, and said entities like universities are hesitant to divulge cases of mental illness on their campuses because it may harm their reputations.

“They don’t want to bring it to the front,” she said. “Students and parents looking at these schools kind of expect to encounter sexually transmitted diseases. When you start throwing out words like ‘depression,’ or ‘suicide,’ they step back and re-evaluate you. They (universities) don’t want to start a controversy.”

Hill said she keeps potential controversies and health scares in mind when reporting, and always considers how her story may affect her audience.

“It’s all in how you write the story,” she said. “Sometimes your audience needs to be made aware of how serious a problem really is. You have to toe that line between warning them and scaring them. If a medical professional is not panicked about a problem, there’s no reason for the audience to be either.”

Stefanksi closed by urging potential health reporters to understand the power they wield in their coverage of the medical field.

“My challenge is that I can only reach one person at a time,” she said. “You guys can reach people on a national scale. Be careful how you handle that information, but take advantage of it as well and seize the opportunity.”