More than 300 news outlets published editorials last week responding to Donald Trump’s anti-press rhetoric. In fact, a new poll indicates that over half of Republicans believe that the media is the “enemy of the people.” We are not journalists. We are pediatricians. But, we understand the importance of free and open journalism as a conduit to improve public health, publish medical knowledge and acknowledge mistakes and successes.
We also recognize how misinformation impacts our professions, particularly our relationships with children, families and colleagues. Inaccurate information can directly impact patients, as seen in the anti-vaccination movement, which has led to outbreaks and deaths from measles and the flu.
In our experience, people will come to a clinic visit with a new intervention, medicine or treatment they’ve read about online. Sometimes these articles are based on peer-reviewed research, but at other times they have no basis in scientific fact. Because our understanding of autism and developmental differences lags other diseases such as asthma, diabetes or infections, there is a well-known knowledge gap between research and clinical practice. This gap creates a void that is often filled with treatments, theories and ideas that are not evidence-based and that can ultimately harm children and families.
We need an effective connection between medicine and journalism to bring legitimate research findings to the public, and physicians have much to learn from journalism in order to communicate medical facts accurately to a broader audience—something recognized a decade and a half ago in a paper published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
In fact, the time we have spent training with journalists has broadened our perspective to evaluate the anti-press rhetoric in a new light. While peer-reviewed journals contribute to scientific knowledge, they are not understood by the lay public. Journalists have trained us to broaden our audience and have a voice to communicate what we know and also communicate better to our patients and families. Connecting science and journalism is essential for the dissemination of knowledge and to provide evidence-based information to all people.
According to the Ethical Journalism Network, five core principles of ethics in journalism include truth and accuracy; independence; fairness and impartiality; humanity; and accountability. The American Press Institute emphasizes a “discipline of verification” as well as accountability for those in power.
These tenets are not unlike core principles of medical ethics, which, as defined by the American Medical Association, call on physicians to provide competent medical care with respect for truth and dignity of patients; advance medical knowledge; and “educate the public policy about present and future threats to the health of humanity.”
The overlap in codes of conduct between journalism and medicine reflects a vital historical relationship between the two fields. Examples include the publications of the Beecher Papers, in which a physician documented unethical research practices; reactions to the Tuskegee trial, in which African American men were left untreated for syphilis to see what happened; and most recently, the actions of the pediatrician who exposed the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
While journalists focus on their commitment to truth and to citizens, physicians focus on what is most beneficial for and in the best interest of the patient. Our roles change depending on our situations, including that we all serve as voices, patients, citizens and, ultimately, humans. Both roles require freedom from interference based on short-term political goals.
To be sure, in a society that values a free and open society, it is essential and expected to engage in disagreements based on evidence or new findings. But that is not what is happening. Discourse about different perspectives is not the same as anti-press rhetoric and the dissemination of misinformation.
Thomas Jefferson described a free press this way in a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure."
Just as the foundation of a doctor-patient relationship is built on trust, it manifests in communicating the truth with grace and compassion. The tenets of journalism are also grounded in truth telling, even when it is inconvenient. To systematically attack the journalism community by using derisive language such as “enemy of the state” and naming facts as “fake news” is unacceptable and dangerous.