Between the Lines: A prescription for more and better health reporting

The experience with Sharon was undoubtedly one reason that Olmert's relatively benign medical issue received such extensive and perhaps overdramatic coverage.

At one point during the press conference last Monday at which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he has prostate cancer, Channel 2 diplomatic correspondent Udi Segal asked the PM's doctors, "Where does his tumor rank on the Gleason's Scale?" Looking surprised to be asked such a technical medical question, they simply answered, "Six." There was no follow-up or explanation about what that meant, and most viewers were left hanging as to the significance of the answer. Gleason's Scale, as it turns out, is the most common way of measuring prostate cancer tumors, with six being the intermediate stage between one and 10 - which explains why the doctors want to perform an operation, but are not unduly alarmed at this stage. Kudos to Segal for asking, but we would probably have had more queries on that order if the Prime Minister's Office had bothered to invite health reporters to the press conference, rather than just political or diplomatic correspondents. "If I had been there, I would have asked about some of the possible after-effects of prostate cancer surgery, such as continence and impotence," says Judy Siegel, The Jerusalem Post's veteran health reporter. She points out that health reporters were also not invited to the press conference following Ariel Sharon's first stroke in December 2005. "If we had been," Siegel notes, "there surely would have been more informed questions about the seriousness of it, and about whether the course of treatment was suitable." IN THE international media, and certainly in the United States, health reporting has become one of the hottest areas of journalism. It sometimes seems not a week goes by, for example, that Time or Newsweek does not run a health-related cover story. Some health correspondents, such as CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, have become widely recognized reporters. Israel isn't there yet, but the situation is changing. After 22 years, Siegel is by far the most veteran correspondent on the health beat, and was a pioneer in the field. Ha'aretz reporter Ran Reznick, who focuses on medical malfeasance, just last week received the Sokolow Prize, the highest award given in the local journalistic field, rarely given to someone reporting outside of the political, diplomatic or security beats. "Surveys show that the Israeli public wants more health coverage,"says Siegel, "but it's not given that kind of priority here." It's likely that in past years, Olmert's prostate cancer might barely have made the papers. As was noted during the coverage this week, the serious medical ailments of past prime ministers - including Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Menahem Begin and, of course, Sharon - were underreported by a local media that felt these were private issues, even for public figures. Not any more. The experience with Sharon, in particular, was undoubtedly one reason that Olmert's relatively benign (at this stage) medical issue received such extensive and perhaps overdramatic coverage. It was certainly the reason why the PMO decided to get out the news of his cancer so quickly, before a much more aggressive press started digging into the story and possibly got it wrong. In a country not unjustifiably obsessed with the security threat from terrorists and radical Islamists trying to attain nuclear capability, it's not surprising the media tend to underplay the daily health issues that on an individual level often impact us with equal, if not greater force. It usually takes something such as a labor dispute in the health-care system, a particularly severe case of medical malpractice or negligence, or a celebrity being stricken down by disease for health stories to be given the coverage they deserve. And sometimes, when that coverage is given, the reporting is ill-informed or sensationalized. Health and medicine are not beats that reporters can be easily be assigned or parachuted into, given the complexity of the issues under consideration. It's a subject that often requires years of on-the-job training to master, and nowadays more serious news organizations with sufficient resources usually require the new reporters they assign to it to have some kind of medical or science academic background. ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH in particular is a field that deserves more serious, thorough and ongoing journalistic treatment in this country. Often these issues only get coverage when citizens affected by a particular environmental hazard finally react in some way that draws publicity. Even then, the underlying health issue tends to get glossed over. An extreme example this week was the violent clash between police and the Druse residents of the Galilee town of Peki'in. Most of the background coverage focused on social tensions stemming from the Druse's minority status in a Jewish state. Less focus was given to the cause of the initial unrest; the attempts by villagers to forcibly take down a nearby cellphone antenna which they said posed a cancer-causing health risk to the community. At least the potential risk of antenna emissions has in general received good coverage in the past, thanks to (legal) community activism elsewhere. But how often before this week did the dangers of prostate cancer ever make the local news pages or broadcasts? It has barely gotten a fraction of the coverage given to much more rare ailments like West Nile flu or the so-called cases of "crazy flu" that make for a tabloid headline or two every winter. Yet, as Siegel wrote this week, six Israelis a day on average are diagnosed with prostate cancer, and early detection through regular testing is crucial to successful treatment. Perhaps when more reporters who know what Gleason's Scale is are on the job, it won't necessarily take an announcement from the Prime Minister's Office to capture journalistic attention for a disease that afflicts so many. [email protected]