The anatomy of a great medical news article

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Researchers have kind of a thankless job.

If you're a medical researcher reading this article, this is the understatement of the week for you. But I want the rest of you reading this to think like a researcher for a moment.

If everything goes right—and I do mean everything—from having to deal with regulatory overhead, fielding unending requests from prospective patients interested in your clinical trials, and keeping track of all that information on a daily basis. Reviewing all the information again with your peers. With the regulatory agencies. And again with the journal you're aiming to publish in.

It's maddening. It's exhausting. But after all that, you have a journal article you can be proud of. It's all done to extend the world's knowledge of medicine just a tiny bit further. (Matt Might's PhD bubble comes to mind.) If you do it right, no one sees the hard work behind it and everyone sees the result.

What I'm getting at is this: there is a lot that goes into a research article, from what the audience reading the final paper sees, to the blood, sweat and toil they don't see. Medical researchers have a lot on their plate.

And then there's you. As a medical journalist, you have a lot on your plate, too. It's your job to see all that and put it in perspective—usually in 400-500 words, written quickly if it's breaking news. You have to be knowledgeable, you have to be accurate, and you have to be good at it.

No easy beginner's road

When is the last time you learned something new? From scratch? Something you'd never done before?

For me, it was running. Running was the last thing on my mind for most of my life until I decided I needed to make some health-conscious choices to help stave off an ever-widening waistline.

I didn't know anything about running. At all. So I researched it, and talked with people who ran, and went out and bought a gray Champion shirt, basketball shorts, and white-and-red running shoes with the little Nike swoosh on the side. I thought I had everything figured out.

But it wasn't until I actually started running that I realized all the reading and talking in the world was no substitute for actually getting out and running.

The same concept applies with medical journalism. Most niches have a learning curve, but if you're truly starting from scratch, it can be an uphill battle. However, it's not impossible to become good at it—even if you've never written a health-based article before.

Start by reading health articles in the lay press in the specialty you want to write about. If the story is about a study, go backwards and see if you can try and find the original article the story is referencing. Look at the difference in terms between the lay press story and the journal (i.e. artificial hip vs. total hip arthroplasty). Learn best practices in your specialty—that way, you'll understand when new research is a departure from traditional research in that field (and worth reporting on).

Walk before you run. With time, you'll learn the ins and outs of your specialty and will learn the language researchers speak when they write research articles. And it really is like learning a new language.

I started from the bottom like everyone else. Going out and writing gave me specific things to learn, rather than viewing the concept from the top down and wondering where to start.

Here are a few things to consider before diving in to your specialty:

Medical Journalism 101: The basics

Just like in a Journalism 101 class, the inverted pyramid concept still applies to a medical news article. You want the most important information first, followed by sentences that support that important information, and then any supplemental information that gives context to the initial point of the article.

But where do we find the most important information? In a medical journal, the articles are typically broken down into four main sections:

  1. Background
  2. Methods
  3. Results
  4. Conclusion

Most, but not all articles contain an abstract which summarizes the research while leaving some of the finer details out. Some articles may also have a discussion section where the researchers writing the article write about how the results of the study apply broadly to the specialty as a whole. This is great information we can use as both education for us and as fodder for interview questions.

There are also different types of research:

  1. Primary Research - Basic research, clinical research, and epidemiological research.
  2. Secondary Research - Meta-analyses and reviews.

You'll want to read up on the various study designs researchers employ and the different levels of research to understand why they choose particular study designs over others.

Journals also have an impact factor that is based on how many of their articles were cited as research by other articles within the past two years. Generally, the higher the impact factor, the better. As you research your specialty, you'll learn which journals are well regarded and publish higher quality articles.

Questions to ask in every medical news story

Typically, you'll want to answer these questions in your news story:

  1. Why is this story significant? Why should your readers care?
  2. What was the outcome of the research, and was it in line with what the study authors expected?
  3. What was the study design, and how did the study design impact the outcome? Were there enough patients to achieve a statistically significant outcome? How long did follow up occur?
  4. What did the specialty look like before this research came along? Is this something clinicians working in this specialty should consider in their practice?

You'll notice these sound like great questions to ask the leading author on the paper you're writing about. Reach out to him or her whenever possible to gain additional perspective and add an exclusive element to your story that won't be found in other news coverage.

If I only have space to fit in one quote from a researcher, I ask him or her what the "take-home message" of the study is. If you could have readers take away one thing, what would it be?

Here are some final thoughts on crafting a great medical news story:

  • Look for commentary about the article you're writing about within the journal. That is extra content you can use in your news story. Not all researchers or clinicians agree with one another, and disagreement can make for an interesting perspective opinion within the story.
  • Did the authors meet their hypothesis? 99% of research you'll encounter has a positive outcome, but you'll occasionally come across research that didn't meet the hypothesis, and that can be newsworthy or the focus of the story.
  • Read the reference section of a study if you're unfamiliar with a topic or it's been a while since you've written about it. Reference articles are a great way to get additional background information and lets you see the foundation the research was built on.

Your turn

Did I miss anything? What do you look for in a good story? Let me know in the comments below.

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