Health News: What Audiences Need & Training the Next Generation of Reporters

Continued analysis of health reporting unearths familiar themes, highlights the importance of numbers in the news

by Jena Barchas-LichtensteinJohn VoiklisNicole LaMarcaUduak Grace ThomasElizabeth AttawayJohn FraserKathryn Nock
Apr 29, 2021

Key Findings

The PBS NewsHour Health Literacy project informs the US public about health issues through two main channels: broadcast news stories that educate adult audiences, and Student Reporting Labs, which set up high school students to take more agency in their own health through reporting. A fourth year of analyzing audience responses to health news stories reported by PBS NewsHour revealed a number of themes that have remained consistent over the course of the project. Meanwhile, it was a challenging year for students and teachers in the program, who had to navigate the disruption to the school year caused by COVID-19. But the data we collected indicates that teachers were able to adapt the program to work remotely. It also gave students an opportunity to produce and share stories about their experiences during the pandemic.

Similar to findings from the Year 3 evaluation and previous years, adult audiences responded well to science information in news stories, especially in reports that included a human interest component. Respondents also said that they enjoyed stories that offered hope and that their least favorite thing about health stories was watching others suffer. Also, audiences were more likely to talk about news stories that resonated with them, based on personal experience or the experience of someone close to them. As with previous years, people were more interested in discussing health stories in person rather than sharing them online. Their reasons for sharing stories were also similar to the ones audiences have articulated in the past -- sharing specific and actionable information as well as maintaining social relationships.

For students who worked on producing their own health news stories, continuity in learning was particularly challenging in 2020. In addition to the social isolation, students and teachers also dealt with issues such as inadequate access to technology, and difficulties finding appropriate topics and interview subjects for students to work with. Even with these challenges, students and teachers were able to do a lot as part of the program. Similar to previous studies, teachers reported that the program curriculum effectively increased students’ skills in various areas including research, writing, and technology use. Students also showed gains in communication and independent work, and became more interested in local community affairs and news more generally.

Lastly, students became somewhat more interested in STEM and health topics as a result of their participation in the SRL labs. In particular, several students wanted to learn more about mental health topics in general, and teen mental health specifically. They expressed greater sensitivity and awareness around mental health, and were interested in educating their friends, families, and communities. They were also interested in information about organizations in their communities that focus on mental health services and issues, with an eye towards getting involved with the work of some of these organizations.

Let’s Put It to Work

For Media Organizations & Journalists: Our suggestions for using this research are applicable to all news organizations. The need for the public to have access to accurate information as well as actions they can take to safeguard their health was evident in 2020, and it remains vital during the ongoing pandemic. It is important for news media to emphasize actionable steps in broadcast stories and to provide talking points that focus on personal impact. Additionally, reporting should highlight more of the methods and processes that are involved in gaining scientific knowledge, while making it clear that there are unknowns.

Lastly, the pandemic has highlighted the challenge and opportunity of including numbers and statistics in news reports in ways that audiences can understand. Knology and PBS NewsHour are also collaborating on Meaningful Math, a research initiative focused on how adult audiences engage with statistical and quantitative information included in news stories. The results of this research are intended to help journalists and news media use numbers and visualizations of numbers more effectively in their reporting. Read more about Meaningful Math here.

About This Study

PBS NewsHour is focusing on building health literacy among adult and teen audiences through the Health Literacy and Student Reporting Labs project. Knology is the evaluator for the project, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health (Award #R25OD020212). The project has two goals: to engage middle and high school students in health science journalism, and to increase general news audiences’ awareness of public health matters. The study is ongoing and we are continuing to collect and analyze data. This project is part of The New News, a larger collaboration with PBS NewsHour and other news outlets on ways that audiences and journalists alike interact with the news media. Read related research on how early career adults engage with STEM news stories and findings on how this cohort curates their experience of news.

Photo: Screenshot of the structure of DNA from PBS NewsHour reporting on how genetic data informs medical breakthroughs.

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