MU journalism professors find major disconnect between health reporters and readers

Health reporters often have trouble effectively getting their message across to readers, according to a study by two MU journalism researchers.

According to the study by Amanda Hinnant and María Len-Ríos, professors in the School of Journalism, many readers do not comprehend what they read and very few health journalists understand how little their readers comprehend.

After surveying 396 newspaper and magazine journalists and conducting 35 in-depth interviews, Hinnant and Len-Ríos realized the severity of their findings. According to an MU news release, almost half of the journalists in the study said they were not familiar with the concept of health literacy.

Health literacy is defined as the degree to which people understand basic health information so they can make correct health care decisions.

Health literacy has been a significant issue in the medical field for quite some time, but in recent years, the topic has been studied more closely.

"There is this growing realization that the compliment to medical professionals getting better at what they do is getting patients to get better at what they do," said Glen Cameron, director of the MU Health Communication Research Center, which applied for the research grant.

Journalists are a mediator between the health profession and their readers, and the researchers argue that certain barriers obscure that relationship. One of those barriers, Hinnant and Len-Ríos found, is medical terms, which can often be difficult to explain.

Also, many people will not read a health article if it is too long. Len-Ríos said health journalists should write with an appropriate audience in mind.

"The people that journalists are likely to interact with aren't necessarily low-health literate unless they make an effort," Len-Ríos said.

Additionally, a reader might be proficient in one area of health but ignorant in another.

"Even if you think you have a sophisticated reader, health literacy varies by context," Hinnant said.

Yet even when journalists think they convey the information clearly, only responses by readers can prove whether the report is effective.

"One of the important things about health literacy is being able to act on health information," Len-Ríos said.

The news release also stated that of the journalists surveyed, 6.4 percent reported that a majority of their readers change health behaviors based on the information they provide.

Some have proposed more training for journalists who report on health issues.

"When journalists have sufficient training in medical science, health and health care issues, it allows them to communicate more clearly and accurately important information to readers, viewers and listeners," said Len Bruzzese, executive director of the Association of Health Care Journalists.

The Midwest Health Journalism Program just graduated its first class of 10 students from Missouri and Kansas. The program aims to train journalists how to better understand health terminology.

"Initial analysis by a team at the University of Kansas shows improved knowledge on all measures," Bruzzese said.

The Missouri Foundation for Health paid for the research and committed to providing other funding for health literacy research.

Because of the research, the health communication research center plans to work with colleagues from the journalism school and the health journalists association to offer more training for health journalists in the state and nationwide.

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