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In conversation with James Hamblin

The Varsity speaks with The Atlantic’s health editor, James Hamblin, about digital media and reporting
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The ethics and repercussions of health reporting are particularly pertinent in light of recent events in health journalism, such as vaccine coverage scandals, covered by popular Toronto-based news media. This is especially true in the age of information, where journalists play an important role in translating medical research and studies into stories that are accessible to the general public.

In collaboration with U of T’s Juxtaposition Global Health Magazine, The Varsity is co-hosting a Health Journalism Symposium this week to address issues in health reporting. The panel of speakers will include Julia Belluz, health reporter at Vox; Andre Picard, health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail; and Dr. Jeremy Petch, a staff member at The Healthy Debate. Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the journalism program at UTSC, will moderate the panel, which will be hosted at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health on Friday March 6, from 3:00 pm–6:00 pm.

Ahead of the discussion, we spoke to Dr. James Hamblin, health editor at The Atlantic, to get his perspective on approaches to health journalism.

The Varsity: What do you think it takes to be an effective health journalist?

James Hamblin: I think it takes time and dedication to a beat. It means getting a sense of who knows what they’re talking about, in terms of sources, because there are a lot of ideologies that play into people’s understanding of science. Even when people profess themselves to be and believe themselves to be purely evidence-driven thinkers, they tend to fall into patterns of thought that may or may not reflect the mainstream scientific perspective.

So it helps to know who you’re talking to and what their perspective has been in the past. To talk to multiple people, and to know enough about [the subject] that you can talk with the expert but not to get too immersed in that world to a point that you can’t talk to the general public. There’s a sweet spot in there.

And I think it can be difficult when you’ve been reporting on a health topic for 10 or 20 years, not to get too into the weeds, in a way that you start to adapt the lingo of the doctors and scientist and forget what it’s like to be someone who knows nothing about it. So keeping your foot in both worlds is an important key.

And trying your best to operate based on science, which is to say that if you go all-in on a story and believe that you’re reporting on something that’s actually happening and then in the future there are new studies that contradict that, you self-correct… You’re just constantly learning and growing as a journalist and it’s a wonderful profession because of it.

TV: As a medical doctor, to what extent do you think one needs a science or medicine background in health journalism?

JH: No one can know everything. Going into journalism, I knew a ton about medicine and science and not as much about journalism. I think most people, going in, are the opposite — they know a lot about journalism and less about medical science. So you’re never going to know everything going in and it can be to your advantage, in the beginning, to bring a fresh perspective — to remember what it’s like to think about these topics as a layperson.

I think you can reach a lot of people that way, before you get too immersed in it and everything sounds like old news to you and you forget that, to most people, this is really interesting and new. [Not having a science background] shouldn’t keep you from writing on it, but I think you can work your way into heavier topics. Don’t start out on the stories that you know people strongly disagree on and they tend to seriously affect people’s lives.

At the moment, in the US, the vaccine story… has gotten out of hand, in part because [of] some journalists who picked up some stories around some fraudulent studies long ago and didn’t know better. That actually affects people’s lives. But you maybe could write about a new study about social sciences or something to do with relationships or a new exercise trend — something lighter. And you get into it, you learn the beat, you learn how people feel about things, learn who are the good people to talk to, and you work your way into the more contentious topics.

TV: I’ve read about your journey going from medicine into journalism in various media channels, but I was wondering how you would describe it, in terms of why you moved into journalism.

JH: That’s a very long story, but I’d say I was drawn to journalism because of the opportunity to be constantly intellectually engaged and constantly learning new things. I think that’s a basic tenet of human satisfaction that is present in the beginning of medical training, but can start lacking toward the end when some of medical practice becomes more routine, and journalism offers the opportunity for constantly working in new areas.

It was also partly because I was in a specialty where I wasn’t especially satisfied and I was looking to do something that married my creative interests in comedy with my interest in medical science. And for me it was always magazine writing. What we do at The Atlantic, magazine writing and videos, is slightly different from a lot of newspaper writing or formats where you don’t exercise as much voice and creativity as you do here. So that’s specifically worked out well for me. It doesn’t mean that I’m interested in all types of journalism… I’m three years in and really enjoying it so far.

TV: Your video series, If Our Bodies Could Talk, is a pretty novel approach to health journalism. How do you think it and other videos change the consumption of health media?

JH: I think as far as all the videos that are out there, a lot of people are doing explainers, especially whiteboard based drawings of complex topics and trying to distill them down in two or three minutes… Some people’s brains don’t allow them to learn well from simply reading text from a paper — they’re more visual and they want things presented with a chipper voice, and bright colours, and some jokes in there and they remember it.

My videos tend to skew more towards entertainment than information delivery. I think in the future we are going to get more ambitious with the sorts of topics that we take on. It started as a very small project and hopefully it makes some people happy, and that’s a tenet of health in itself, not to get too meta.

I think every time you go to a new medium, you’re not just challenging yourself as a journalist but you’re reaching, potentially, a whole new audience of people who just don’t consume a different medium. Some people just never really read long-form anything — you have to write short. Some people only read long-form. Some people only go on Instagram, or check Vines, and read things that are pushed to them by email. Every time you do it in a different way, you potentially are reaching a new audience. That’s exciting.

TV: How do you think health journalism will change in the next few years, especially with changing technology and access to information?

JH: If I could predict the future of digital media I would be running my own company in the capital.
I think that [there are] some people who are slower to adapt to new things and some people who choose to be excited about the opportunity to try a new platform. I get excited about these things but I also don’t think it means that more traditional long-form journalism is going to go away. But I think it helps for anyone coming into the field to be flexible and to not think of themselves as just a writer but to think of themselves as a person who experiences the world and finds the truth and reports out to a general audience, no matter whether that means doing it in a single sentence tweet or though Instagram or through Facebook posts or whatever. People who lament the new media as fundamentally changing the field, I think [their] entire argument is predicated on an understanding of what journalism was for a long time, but not on an understanding of what journalism is at its essence. If anything, we have an amazing amount of opportunities to be more innovative and be more effective as journalists than ever before.

TV: In your experience, what have been the largest challenges associated with health journalism and health reporting?

JH: Scoping of stories — there’s always more you can say, there are always more people who you could talk to, there is always another book you can read to learn more about what you’re writing about. And it’s very easy to get in too deep and forget what you came in for, and how to make a reader come into a story and not feel like they’ve gotten into way more than they wanted to know. And at the same time, make sure that you’ve covered all your bases. And all of that within the time constraints of digital journalism presents just an ongoing challenge for the whole field. That’s something that I just think about, constantly.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.