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Can journalists learn a lesson from the medical profession?

Jul 07, 2020 |

Journalists can learn a lesson from the field of medicine, an administrator in the School of Health Professions at St. Bonaventure University wrote in a paper posted today (July 7) by the Jandoli Institute.

In her paper, “Headlines Should Help, Not Harm,” Connie J. Perkins, founding director of the university’s RN to B.S. in Nursing Program, pointed out that licensed health care professionals take an oath to do no harm. She suggests that journalists should do the same, and a starting point could be by exercising care in the headlines they compose.

Citing work by a journalism faculty member at Abilene Christian University, Perkins noted, “Headlines must be correct. They must connect to ordinary readers. They must attract attention, and they must set a tone for the article. But if journalism is to play a role in ensuring a healthy democracy, journalists must add a fifth imperative, one borrowed from the world of medicine. A headline must help, not harm.”

Perkins’ paper is the third post in the Jandoli Institute’s Media Across Disciplines summer project, a collection of research essays connecting different academic disciplines with the field of communication.

In the essay, she argues that journalists should refrain from identifying people by profession in headlines unless the profession is directly related to the topic of the story.

“It seems that more people rely on headlines as their only way to obtain information, so journalists need to consider what message they are delivering to readers through their headlines,” she wrote. “Are they creating mistrust in an entire profession when the story being reported is meant to provide details on an isolated incident that occurred regardless of occupational title?”

Perkins said headlines that contain “nurse” for stories unrelated to a nurse’s professional responsibilities are especially troublesome.

“Since nurses make up the largest part of the health care profession and are encountered most often by patients, they commonly are referred to as the face of health care,” she said. “Since all people have the potential to become patients at some point in their lives due to chronic illness and/or accident, any undue negative impressions of nurses, who they will eventually encounter, should be avoided. When readers view stories about nurses who make mistakes outside of work, the entire profession takes the brunt of the disappointment, as do the patients. There is no lesson to be learned; no help, just harm.”

Perkins will present her paper on Zoom at 7 p.m. Thursday in a format modeled after academic conference presentations. She will summarize the paper and then take part in panel discussion with Charlie Specht, a 2010 St. Bonaventure journalism graduate who is the chief investigative reporter at WKBW-TV, the ABC affiliate in Buffalo, and Pauline Hoffmann and Denny Wilkins, both faculty members in St. Bonaventure’s Jandoli School of Communication. Richard Lee, executive director of the Jandoli Institute, will moderate the session. Details on how to access the session may be obtained by emailing the institute at jandoli@sbu.edu.

The institute will post a new Media Studies Across Disciplines essay on its website every Tuesday through Aug. 11. Thursday Zoom presentations will follow several of the presentations.

The essays were authored by St. Bonaventure faculty members who used their knowledge and expertise to provide insight and analysis from their own individual perspectives. Faculty from biology, history, nursing, philosophy and sociology contributed to the project, which was funded by the Leo E. Keenan Jr. Faculty Development Endowment and the Jandoli School of Communication. The essays were selected through a blind peer-review process.

The Jandoli Institute serves as a forum for academic research, creative ideas and discussion on the intersection between media and democracy. The institute, accessible at jandoli.net, is part of the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University