A Healthy Dose of Real Reporting

by Alex Kramer

A quick glance into HealthDay’s Melville office does not give one the impression that this is one of the country’s largest health news outlets. It isn’t filled with constantly ringing phones and reporters scrambling to fulfill tight deadlines. At HealthDay, the newsroom is spread around the world. About 100 freelancer reporters contribute to the steady flow of health information.

Soon I was one of these reporters. I covered stories that explained breaking new research and stories that broke down ways to manage complicated health problems. My role was part student, part investigative reporter and part medical adviser.

In a way, the work seemed anticlimactic. I guess I had expected the newsroom to be like The Washington Post in “All the President’s Men,” but it wasn’t. My “real world” reporting, which was being published by major news outlets like WebMD, U.S. News and Everyday Health, applied exactly the same skills I had learned in my reporting classes.

In health reporting, it seems like every story is completely different from the next. One week I was writing about heart arrhythmias and the next was about cooking classes for kids.

This unpredictability required me to become an expert, or at least sound like one, in an extremely short time. I needed to be capable of asking sources educated questions so that their comments could actually add to the article, rather than just summarize what they had already published.

I developed a solid system for attacking new stories when I received each assignment. I would determine the type of expert I needed to speak with – often the lead author and an objective expert in the same field – and reach out to them. Then I would quickly start reading as much as possible about the topic while I waited to hear back from my sources. I really enjoyed this almost panicked rush to learn as much as I could. I was ready to thoroughly discuss the newsworthy aspects of the story by the time my sources were ready.

Depending on the publication I was writing for, the requirements for the article were quite different. Some required me to provide several key takeaways and a particularly catchy headline, while others were looking for a hard news lede that quickly summarized the new information. Bouncing back and forth between these styles was difficult at times, but I had editors with me along the way to help me adjust.

I got significantly more comfortable with each style as the semester went on, and as a result, my drafts needed fewer changes.

I also had the opportunity to write short video scripts for HealthDay’s video series, HealthDay TV and HealthDay Living. Though writing for video is not my strongest skill, it was excellent practice for writing concise copy.

This internship would be an excellent experience for anyone interested in health journalism. It was an extremely supportive environment where I was given the chance to write for major publications and apply the skills I had learned in class.