Unless you’re extremely vigilant and/or organized, it really is easy to miss important information. Just today I came cross a June 21st post on Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog on a May 27th PLoS Medicine article entitled, “How Do US Journalists Cover Treatments, Tests, Products, and Procedures? An Evaluation of 500 Stories.”

I also discovered a new blog (started in June), a healthy distrust, which is devoted primarily to issues like: science in the media, scientists versus journalists, accuracy of press coverage of science, the use of press releases by journalists (instead of actually reading the study), the reporting of unpublished research in the press (e.g., poster presentations from conferences [my example]), quoting the public as a source in scientific stories, and using quacks (my term) as sources to balance the story. Frankly, my brief description doesn’t do the blog justice. See: “The biggish picture - or why this blog exists.”

The author of the PLoS Medicine article is Gary Schwitzer, Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Publisher of Health News Review, and blogger of the Schwitzer health news blog. The article is about a US Web site project, HealthNewsReview.org, which evaluates and grades health news coverage, notifying journalists of their grades. Schwitzer begins the article by briefly describing two similar projects:
(1) The Australian Media Doctor Web site, which monitors the health news coverage of 13 Australian news organizations.
(2) The Canadian Media Doctor Web site, which evaluates health news coverage by 12 Canadian news organizations.

HealthNewsReview.org monitors news coverage by the top 50 most widely circulated newspapers in the US; the most widely used wire service, the Associated Press; and the three leading newsweekly magazines — TIME, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. Each weekday they watch the morning and evening newscasts of the three most watched television networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC.


  • The daily delivery of news stories about new treatments, tests, products, and procedures may have a profound — and perhaps harmful — impact on health care consumers.
  • Health News Review evaluates and grades US health news coverage, notifying journalists of their grades.
  • After almost two years and 500 stories, the project has found that journalists usually fail to discuss costs, the quality of the evidence, the existence of alternative options, and the absolute magnitude of potential benefits and harms.
  • Reporters and writers have been receptive to the feedback; editors and managers must be reached if change is to occur.
  • Time (to research stories), space (in publications and broadcasts), and training of journalists can provide solutions to many of the journalistic shortcomings identified by the project.

In order to be eligible for review, a story must include a claim of efficacy or safety in a health care product or procedure (drug, device, diagnostic or screening test, surgical procedure, dietary recommendation, vitamin, supplement). The rating instrument used includes ten criteria addessed by the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Statement of Principles (A Statement of Principles for Health Care Journalists by Gary Schwitzer. American Journal of Bioethics 2004; 4: W9 - W13):

1. Adequately discusses costs.
2. Quantifies benefits.
3. Adequately explains and quantifies potential harms.
4. Compares the new idea with existing alternatives.
5. Seeks out independent sources and discloses potential conflicts of interest.
6. Avoids disease mongering.
(Journalists should “avoid promulgating the medicalization of normal states of or variations in health (e.g., baldness, menstruation, short stature, etc.). We also try to educate journalists about surrogate endpoints and about how risk factors are not diseases. With this criterion, we also remind them not to exaggerate the prevalence or incidence of a condition.”)
7. Reviews the study methodology or the quality of the evidence.
8. Establishes the true novelty of the idea.
9. Establishes the availability of the product or procedure.
10. Appears not to rely solely or largely on a news release.

In their evaluation of 500 US health news stories over 22 months, between 62% - 77% of stories failed to adequately address costs, harms, benefits, the quality of the evidence, and the existence of other options when covering health care products and procedures. Only 38% of stories were rated satisfactory for putting the intervention under discussion into the context of existing alternative options. Of the first 500 stories reviewed, 41 (8%) received their highest scores. They appear online at http://www.healthnewsreview.org/review/by_rating.php?rating=5.  (As of today, the 22nd of July 2008, this has been updated to 73 five-star reviews out of 615 stories.)

Gary Schwitzer concludes the article by hoping that HealthNewsReview.org’s “evaluation of health news will lead news organizations — and all who engage in the dissemination of health news and information — to reevaluate their practices to better serve a more informed health care consumer population.”

I’d like to end today’s post by once again welcoming a healthy distrust to the blogosphere.

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22 Responses to “I Read the News Today… Oh Boy”  

  1. 1 andrea

    In addition to the lack of thoughtful analysis so often seen, I think a large chunk of blame on the editors’ heads is the format for current broadcast news.

    Compare the older news format of news announcers (e.g. David Brinkley reading the news) and news analysts, versus the modern personality- and hype-driven format.

    The actual news delivery time is shortened by the expository banter of (1) “next up, he introduces the shocking news” (2) “here’s what she’s going to tell you about shocking news story” (3) “I’m telling you about the shocking news” (4) “here’s what she told you about the shocking news” and (5) “wow, wasn’t that shocking news!”

    Worse, so much of the news is delivered for value of hype (sound-bytes and visual glam or horror), and for controversy (whether or not there is a basis for such). Ordinary everyday problems are passed over by Our! Local! Action! News! Team! because they are not bizarre enough or not quickly resolved (e.g. pot hole repair), even though those are the ones that affect the most people and are in chronic need of attention.

    The vitriolic laments about how the “liberal press” is “not promoting family values” is really just a distraction from the fact that the press is too often mis-focused on what amounts to fluff and news of dubious quality.

    The only improvement in the news I’ve seen is that nowadays we have actual meteorologists doing the weather, instead of clowns and other boobs. I wish the rest of the science news could be like that!

    (Um, here’s your soapbox back–)

  2. 2 Paul

    Yep, journalists do a lousy job. Far worse than 35-40 years ago. But what do you expect?

    IMHO the average American has an attention span of, oh, 30 seconds when asked to read something. And few read newspapers, news mags, etc., at all.

    So, journalists, newscasters, etc., are under pressure to KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).

    Add to that that most so-called science reporters exposure to any science was probably high school chemistry (which they barely passed), and again, I’m not surprised.

  3. 3 Dr. T

    Why would anyone expect good medical reporting from the media that give greater emphases to stories about homeopathic, naturopathic, chiropractic, herbal, crystal, magnetic, and other quack therapies? They also report on ESP, parapsychic investigations, astrology, and alien-piloted UFOs.

    Since I was a second-year medical student in 1979, I have kept track of how many medical articles in the lay press had no significant factual or interpretive errors. The count has been easy to remember: 0. It will stay at zero, because I no longer read newspapers or news magazines, and I never watch TV.

    I’ll note one exception. He’s a mix of opinion writer and report, and his articles about science and medicine usually are good. That’s Ron Bailey at Reason Magazine.

  4. 4 Heraclides

    There’s been talk about this issue here (i.e. not in the USA) and one thing that came out was the lack of specialist reporters. Any comments on if this is true elsewhere?

  5. 5 Uncle Dave

    “The daily delivery of news stories about new treatments, tests, products, and procedures may have a profound — and perhaps harmful — impact on health care consumers.”

    Pathedic would be closer to reality. Though I am not a medical professional I find the
    science bases news today to be getting closer and closer to “The National Enquirer”
    particularly in its vomiting of small packets of summaries to
    items such as “new research suggests that……”

    I am in agreement with Paul on this issue “what do you expect?”
    There is a growing expectation to get the news out in smaller and smaller
    sentences and move on to the next item. Is technology in our society
    (text messaging etc.) contributing to a growing A.D.D.
    in our society? Neilson tells the networks If you can’t get everything a person needs
    to know in 30 seconds or less they will change the channel.

    I can’t watch the network news anymore and many of the news shows
    are singularly populated with so much opinion……

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