Competence in the face of Uncertainty
Joanne Kenen on what it takes in health journalism
By Leo Brown
Joanne Kenen, health care editor of Politico, shared her perspective on leadership through her career in health journalism during a recent conversation hosted by Voices in Leadership at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Kenen’s success in the field of health journalism presents a splendid case of providing steady, effective leadership amid uncertainty and transition.
Few industries are described as “volatile” or “dead” so often as journalism. When asked what has changed about journalism since launching her career over two decades ago as a reporter at Harvard’s own Crimson, Kenen replied succinctly, “Everything.”
This landscape has defined the nature of her leadership by requiring constant adjustment and flexibility. Her career has been built on shifting baselines and deftly seized opportunities, even down to the basic choice of writing about health in the first place.
Kenen is not a scientist by training, but that has not stopped her from reaching her position as a respected, trusted voice in the health care arena.
“I don’t know how I got here, but I love it … I didn’t set out to be a health journalist.”
“I’m okay at science,” Kenen notes. As we find ourselves in a political era that pits science versus fear, there is comfort in her understated handle of evidence.
Since Kenen became a health journalist, the speed and volume of media in the digital age has blossomed, a transition that has stretched capacity, shuttered newsrooms, and demanded new strategies. But while the competitive environment in our 24-hour news cycle may seem to demand jingoistic excess — yellow journalism, if you will — Kenen does not compromise her values.
She explains that the role of journalist is not only to inform, but to provide a framework for that information — how to process the flood of words and, when appropriate, what to do. She knows that quality, honest, and thoughtful reporting will connect with people, meeting a vital need as readers seek clear analysis and explanation.
For Kenen, leadership requires confidence as well as honesty and integrity. And Kenen oozes confidence. Confidence is particularly needed in her field, where so much of what she writes, edits, and says is published within minutes. She has to be thorough, and she has to know her stuff.
More importantly, when she is wrong — or when she doesn’t have a good answer — she says so. And there is a power in doing that. This is why her readers and her colleagues trust her. She calls it as she sees it, with cool nerves and a straight shot.
Kenen points to three aspects of leadership that guide her remarkable career and approach to health care journalism.
- Agenda-setting, as both an editor and a reporter. For example, she articulated and analyzed the public health and policy issues related to e-health, the electronic communication and synchronization of medical information, before anyone else. As Kenen explained in a recent article, effective communication between health care workers can make the difference between life and death.
- Explaining. She finds the right words to communicate critical information and compelling stories in a voice that will resonate and stick. She also helps others do the same.
- Being a mentor. She describes herself as maternal by nature, a nurturer, and she dispenses advice based on decades of experience that most of her staff can only look forward to.
Kenen’s best piece of advice for aspiring scientists and journalists who want to work in the policy world?
Simple. “Know your stuff.”
Why, just in case there was any doubt?
“It’ll make the rest of your job easier.”