A finger on the pulse of health and science

Washington, DC journalist Nancy Shute says it is vital to interpret information for a highly interested but overwhelmed public.

NANCY SHUTE (photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
(photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
Nancy Shute – president of the US National Association of Science Writers – is well aware that she is one of the lucky ones. Not only is she a journalist – a career she dreamed of and first got a taste of at the age of 12 – but she is working in her ideal fields of medicine and science.
She is lucky because some 10,000 American journalists were fired in the past decade due to the economic downturn and the ravages of the Internet – and she is still working, getting paid enough to make a living, innovating in multimedia journalism, seeing the world, mentoring other journalists and winning prizes.
Shute, who was born in Chicago, is married and has a nine-year-old daughter, has just made her first-ever visit to Israel to attend a conference on “Science and the Media” organized by the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology and the Israel Academy of Sciences and the Humanities. Switching to the other side of the pen, she gave an interview to The Jerusalem Post’s health and science editor about her experience and impressions.
Her past experiences include working for a TV station in Idaho, directing science and technology coverage for US News & World Report as assistant managing editor and serving as a senior writer for the publication – covering health policy, neuroscience, pediatrics, infectious disease and public health law. Among the titles she has contributed to are The New York Times, National Geographic, Scientific American, The New Republic, The Washington Post and Smithsonian.
Currently she works for National Public Radio (NPR), where she is one of about 20 journalists in the field; she blogs, trains journalists in the uses of social media and other new technologies and teaches science writing at Johns Hopkins University. She is also a frequent guest on regional and national radio and TV, including CNN and Fox News. She is one of thousands of journalists of all kinds working in the US capital.
Shute didn’t inherit her love for medical writing from her family; Her father was an investment banker. Her octogenarian parents live in Oregon. One brother is a physician and the other is in investment banking. Nevertheless, without following anyone’s example, “by age 12, I was publishing an independent newspaper with my middle- school friends, using a manual typewriter and drawing illustrations by hand,” she recalled in an interview.
She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a BA in English literature and received a master’s from Yale Law School in 1980. As a Fulbright Scholar between 1993 and 1994, she went to Kamchatka, Russia, where she founded the city’s first bilingual independent newspaper – and met her husband, Roman Kulbashny, who works for the US Federal government in the field of computers and physics in Washington, DC.
“Though I didn’t start out as a science journalist, I quickly realized that the most interesting and challenging stories were those that demanded that I explain how science works and how it affects human life and society.” Today, there are about 2,400 members in the National Association of Science Writers, she said, “and I think the majority of them are women. Some of them began as scientists themselves, but they realized that intensive research would be too difficult combining with family life. So they decided to write about science. All association members are all struggling with the same thing – journalism in a digital era.”
But the Columbia University School of Journalism and its counterparts elsewhere are still thriving, as would-be journalists are combining various techniques, such as animation, to attract more customers. “There are multiple points of entry to really complex subjects. You can use multimedia to explain, for example, how the flu virus functions. This is a great way to communicate science and medicine.”
On radio, Shute can “tell a good story, even an in-depth one eight minutes long. If listeners want more information, I can refer them to the NPR website and give links to studies and research. There are new forms of journalism for the future. It’s a scary prospect, but it’s also exciting,” she said.
“Science and medical journalism is very interesting – much more interesting than politics. I have been doing it since 1996. There is something new and real every day. And you get to meet such wonderful people.”
AT THE recent science and media conference in Haifa, Technion president Prof. Peretz Lavie said that scientists need the media in order to effect change. Lavie, a senior psychologist whose specialty is sleep medicine, said that many studies he conducted aroused interest in the press and brought about changes. For example, daylight savings time was restored in Israel after interior ministers had prevented it for years and “zero hour” in the schools was cancelled when he found it caused tiredness and was harmful to health.
Lavie added that “science in Israel is flowering, but having a connection with the public is vital. It is very important to bring the word of science” to the people, he added. “There is no shortage of scientific publications, but the link that connects science and the public remains weak.”
Shute noted that in the US, “there is a great deal of public interest in consumer health news. Americans have extensive access to health topics and go to the Internet to learn about their health problems. They go to their doctors with printouts of material they found on their condition. But there is so much commercial junk there. The public needs the experience of knowledgeable medical journalists to interpret the information, validate it and put it into perspective,” said Shute.
“Obviously, the print media are in trouble. It’s very expensive to print, and advertisements in the newspapers are much more expensive than on the Internet. There have been many different business models for online newspapers, but most papers on the Internet have not found a way to charge for content, as readers are used to seeing articles on the Web for free.
“With the US recession, the country has lost lots of print publications and those that remained have cut back. Pixels are very cheap.” To try to fill the gap for some idealistic journalists, foundations have funded websites presenting investigative articles that would not have been able to appear if subjugated to publishers with vested interests. “There is a lot of experimentation with everything one can think of. Some projects fail, but others succeed,” said Shute. “Good, honest, accurate journalism is important because it protects democracy besides informing the public.”
It might be easier for publishers in a pressing economy to get rid of science reporters, Shute noted, “but not those reporting on health because of the incredible public interest.” Two-fifths of the American public get their news from Facebook, she says, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. “To know more about health, they also talk to their doctors and friends.
There is lots of horrible, inaccurate, commercial stuff out there; if you ask people how reliable information on the Web is, they’re usually skeptical.”
But the Internet has also been a boon for people with “orphan diseases” that affect only a small number of people and used to be ignored. Affected patients and families can join together, find research and accumulate the power to demand more.” She recalls reporting on the case of a woman who was due to have a kidney removed because her condition supposedly caused tumors. But she learned through Facebook that the risk was only for a benign tumor, so she cancelled her operation at the last minute.”
But, stressed Shute, “there has been misinformation, as in the false medical journal reports that certain vaccines can cause autism, which continues to mislead even though they have been disproved and officially denied. The public have to learn what sources to trust. They need and want trustworthy health information. Instead of individuals seeing a research study on the Web, I can put it into proportion and say that other studies said the opposite. I can put it in context.”
The Washington medical and science journalist is an advocate of using Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites. She spends hours a day on them for her own uses to collect information and make contacts she ordinarily would not reach throughout the US and the world – as well as to promote her career. Shute noted that her ongoing digital contacts occasionally lead to story tips. For example, she said that a US health official tweeted about peanut butter infected with salmonella bacteria, checked the information out and wrote a story on her blog a few hours later.
But she conceded that using Facebook and Twitter to make contacts and collect information would be much less necessary for her journalistic counterparts in Israel due to the vast differences in the size of the countries. There are a few dozen hospitals and medical schools here, and reporters can easily reach doctors and scientists. Israeli journalists usually enjoy much more personal and direct contact with their sources and the individuals they cover.
Shute admires Israel’s universal healthcare system, in which every legal resident enjoys a generous basket of health services. In the US, there are tens of millions of people who don’t have health coverage because they don’t have a workplace that provides it. “It’s so frustrating that almost every other advanced country in the world has universal healthcare. The US medical system is very expensive and inefficient. Huge amounts of money go just into billing and invoices. I think it’s pretty much split evenly between Americans who think universal health insurance would be for the public good and moral. But there are many others with vested interests and make a lot of money from the system. Many don’t want the Federal government telling them what to do,” said Shute.
“A considerable number of physicians refuse to accept certain health insurance policies because they say the company doesn’t pay them enough. My daughter’s pediatrician won’t accept ours,” Shute said, “so we have to pay for her care outof- pocket. Medications are expensive; even with our insurance, we pay $50 to $100 for a prescription.”
But it isn’t as though the government has nothing to do with healthcare. “There is Medicare, which most retired people are happy with. Yet even if the administration’s healthcare legislation goes through, implementation will be very hard.”
Another hard-to-crack issue is powerful pharmaceutical companies, some of which try to turn everything into a disease and sell pills for it. “We medical journalists have to ask tough questions and be skeptical,” she said.
It isn’t easy to be in her profession, Shute concluded, “but I am an optimist, and I am thrilled to work as a journalist after so many years. I started out in print, and now I am on radio, the Internet, video and other things. I have no idea how it will pan out, but it will be exciting to watch.”