Interview with Jeffrey Young, health reporter for Huffington Post
What 3 things annoy you most about PR people contacting you with their company news?
I have a ready list of PR pet peeves. I don’t need PR people as friends. I hate cold call pitches about things I never write about. You lose credibility instantly. Reporters are on these mass lists. Among other things if you can’t be bothered about what my publication writes about or what I write about don’t bother contacting me. If you care enough to pitch me a story you should care what I write about. I’m too busy. At the same time, even if your material is relevant to what I write about, I’m not obliged to respond to every pitch I get.
I look at my inbox every 4 minutes because I might have to deal with something right away. I communicate with my editors throughout the day from NY; I’m in DC.
I don’t have strong enough words to express how much I hate the following: did I get their email! One time in 1,000 I may say thanks for the message but I will call you if/when I’m interested in further follow up. It’s an interruption. A 2nd email to remind me that you sent the first one? – ok sure. But don’t call me to ask me! It’s old fashioned.
For PR people, for most reporters, I never lose sight of the fact that people I’m talking to have an agenda of their own – their job is to do what makes the people they work for look good. That doesn’t mean we have to be combative with each other. On the other hand it would be professional malfeasance if I took everything at face value and didn’t do my own reporting.
I’m talking to people and what I write sometimes makes someone feel that I’ve made them look bad. There’s a game being played and it’s more that way. This is more prevalent in politics. They want their story told the way they want it told. We both have a job to do and let’s see how we can each get by.
My whole job is not to believe what people tell me. But I don’t have to be a jerk about it.
My subjects always want to look good, like they’re helping me out. If I put a thought inside a story I’ve written, and someone contacts me and says I know about this it is nice and helps build credibility with me.
I imagine queries are pouring in and you’re totally inundated. What that’s like for you and how to you deal with it? How do you keep up with all the content and still write a story.
On any given day I’m monitoring other reporters on Twitter. When I worked at Bloomberg the goal was to break the story. My editor would have to figure out a way to justify why Reuters beat us. At the Huffington Post we provide our readers with the most up-to-date coverage whether we wrote it or not – and we always give proper credit and try to send readers to the original source. We post what we think is most important. It’s still common practice at other news outlets to pretend a story didn’t happen, to try to follow it with a similar story that comes out later (which I don’t think serves anybody’s interests), or even to debunk what can look an awful lot like spite.
News is news for a reason –you put it out first and it had not been previously known. Politico was breaking news all the time. There’s other ways to build trust and loyalty. Part of the whole idea behind Huffington Post is we want you to find what you’re looking for. With Huffington Post the theory is to send people to the breaking stories and we allow you to “link out” from us. [Other news outlets] don’t want you to link out. Huffington Post will let you leave the site. Huffington Post readers like the fact that we’re not jerking them around. So we’re not always first, but we don’t pretend that the news didn’t happen. Our rule of thumb: everyone should cover it.
Whereas it’s still common practice at other news outlets to pretend a story didn’t happen, to try to follow it with a similar story that comes out later (which I don’t think serves anybody’s interests), or even to debunk it out of what can look an awful lot like spite.
How do you respond to PR people reaching out to you on Twitter?
The way I use Twitter has changed over the years, possibly because I’ve gained a lot more followers over the last year or so or because I’ve landed on the wrong people’s’ radar. The level of nastiness in my @ column has significantly worsened.
Unfortunately this has led me to mostly ignore it, so anyone trying to get my attention on Twitter (in a good or bad way) probably won’t be successful. Twitter also allows users to filter what shows up in their @ column, and I’ve completely switched over to that setting, meaning a person I’m not following, who isn’t verified, who maybe doesn’t have many followers, etc., won’t show up there (although I can’t claim to understand how Twitter filters @ mentions, etc.).
It’s a shame, but predictable, that some people are making Twitter less fun and less useful as a way to interact with people. And it’s not just me. I’ve had many conversations with other journalists about this lately, and more people I know are doing the same thing. It’s even worse for women and basically anyone who isn’t a straight, white male, who have to suffer truly hateful comments from Twitter and Facebook users on a daily basis.
What about your coverage of healthcare?
For healthcare stuff we have a sharp focus on consumers but we add a different angle. I’m interested in the topic of hospital acquired infections. An ideal story for me would be if I could talk to a patient who had acquired a serious infection at a hospital. And then I build backwards from there. (But most hospitals are not going to allow me to talk to patient that had a preventable infection from their ICU.) That is the big obstacle to writing well rounded stories on this. Even hospitals that have done well reducing CLABSIs and other HAIs are reluctant to provide infected patients as spokespersons.
What’s your opinion on clinical study embargoes?
When I worked at Bloomberg we had a significant study with an embargo of 12:01 AM. But Reuters posted it at midnight. I had to document why Reuters beat us. I was directed to go back to the study publisher and rat out Reuters. There had to be a paper trail that had to include my email. That is the “law” when you get beat on breaking news.
When a scientific journal embargoes a study, I ask for it in advance so I can read it, do my reporting/interviews and prepare my story to coincide with the study publication date. There are many bad studies. With complicated stuff I want to talk to others. If it’s under embargo I can’t write about it and run my story in advance of publication. On the other hand, if I can’t look at the story and do my vetting in advance, then all I can do is write up the study as is. Without seeing the study in advance I can’t go to another source to get their input on it. Most reporters are respectful of embargoes and will not publish their stories before the study is published. But the publishers of the study should handle the embargo the same way for all healthcare media.
At Bloomberg I wanted to write about more than the results of the study. Who can I talk to about this? – an expert in public policy; is there a political angle; etc.? I won’t write a big story about a study if I can’t do my reporting in advance. Or else I write JUST about the study.
Photo: Jeffrey Young