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Difficulties Reporting Age And End Of Life: Language Lessons From The Association Of Health Care Journalists

Journalists should shun cliche language and hyperbolic statements when covering sensitive end of life-related issues, said author and research scholar Nancy Berlinger during “Aging and End of Life Care,” a webcast presented by The Association of Health Care Journalists.

AHCJ Webcast
Screen Shot of Moderator Liz Seeger, Nancy Berlinger and Lisa Krieger During the Webcast

Berlinger, who directed The Hastings Center project that produced Guidelines for Decisions on Life-Sustaining Treatment and Care Near the End of Life, said language can unintentionally influence readers’ reactions to news reports. She suggested that reporters repeat the actual terms used by clinicians- even if it takes more time and explanation.

According to Berlinger, using the word “controversial” to describe a family’s decision to withhold life-sustaining treatments immediately polarizes the discussion. “It suggests there is something risky about it.” Sometimes, she said, journalists make simple mistakes like using “coma” and “brain dead” interchangeably- which could inaccurately describe a patient’s condition. Even writing “he is fighting cancer” may exacerbate  the growing problem of patients turning to increasingly painful and often futile treatments.

Unfortunately, many health care journalists find it more exciting to write about cures, “the stuff that gets on the front page,” said award-winning reporter Lisa M. Krieger of the San Jose Mercury News. But as more baby boomers enter the age that has come to be known as the “Silver Tsunami,” comprehensive end of life reporting is becoming more vital and timely. Krieger highlighted recent examples of thoughtful coverage, such as The New York Times Magazine’s lengthy profile of a right-to-die activist caring for her chronically ill husband, as well as New York Magazine’sA Life Worth Ending,” about a son’s plea for his mother to let go.

Magazines are not the only ones producing excellent end of life coverage, Berlinger said. “It’s hard to say what the mainstream media is anymore. Blogs and major media are very influential.”