Guest Post by Gary Schwitzer
Lessons from 10 years of health news watchdog work
In April, HealthNewsReview.org will be 10 years old. There is no comparable dynamic database of critiques of U.S. health care media messages. There are countless lessons to be learned from our experience of evaluating media messages about health care interventions. Two somewhat recent summaries of our work have been published here and here (both password-protected journal articles); one of the best consumer-oriented online articles about our work appears here.
The report card from the systematic, criteria-driven reviews is not good. Two-thirds of 2,100 stories reviewed got unsatisfactory on these criteria: discussing the cost of the intervention, adequately quantifying the potential benefits and harms of the intervention, and evaluating the quality of the evidence behind the claims being made. You can review some examples of our reviews of news stories dealing with breast cancer issues.
We only began systematically reviewing health care PR news releases one year ago, but already a poor performance picture is developing. A whopping 94% of news releases fail on the cost discussion. And more than 70% get unsatisfactory grades on the benefits, harms, and the quality of the evidence criteria. Here are some examples of our reviews of PR news releases dealing with breast cancer issues.
Our blog has many examples of posts on media messages about breast cancer, or, more specifically about mammography. We have also started a podcast series, featuring national experts such as Dr. Laura Esserman, who discussed the controversy surrounding DCIS, and another with standout health care journalist Christie Aschwanden, who has reported often on breast cancer issues.
All of that, in a nutshell, provides a quick overview of what we’ve been doing for 10 years – all with a goal of improving the flow of information about health care interventions to the general public, and of improving the public dialogue about health care. That dialogue, unfortunately, has often been inaccurate, imbalanced and woefully incomplete on breast cancer issues.
What would we like for our 10th anniversary in April? We wish we could put ourselves out of business – that we would see such improvement in media messages and in the public dialogue that there wouldn’t be a need for a project like ours anymore. That won’t happen. And we’re not going to announce a “moonshot” program to reach that goal by our 15th anniversary, either. But our mission and our messages are clearly gaining more traction the longer we keep doing this work. And we appreciate the interest and support of so many breast cancer advocates and so many active in the breast cancer social media community.
On our upcoming Tweetchat, we may want to address some of these questions:
– T1: What examples of media performance give you in the #bcsm community particular concern? What topics or what issues do you think are under-reported and deserve more attention?
– T2: Given that the average patient often does not have access to the original research article, what tools are available so that they can “read beyond the headlines” to determine if a story is accurate? [Admin note – many helpful links in the Health News Review Toolkit]
– T3: What else can be done about inaccurate, imbalanced, incomplete media messages about health care? How can patients help?
If you have examples of people being harmed by misleading media messages, please share them with me, because that may be one way to get the attention of editorial decision-makers. We have begun to tell such stories in our podcasts. More are in the works. We welcome your suggestions – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Gary Schwitzer has published HealthNewsReview.org since 2006. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Among his publications are a 2002 JAMA piece, “The Magical Medical Media Tour Guide” and a 2014 JAMA Internal Medicine article, “A Guide to Reading Health Care News Stories.” Gary worked in television news for 15 years – in Milwaukee, Dallas and CNN and he has taught health journalism workshops at the NIH Medicine in the Media series, at the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT Medical Evidence boot camps, at 9 consecutive Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) national conferences, and at National Cancer Institute (NCI) workshops. Follow Gary and HealthNewsReview on Twitter.