Posts Tagged ‘Gary Schwitzer’

The pitfalls of healthcare journalism

January 3, 2009  |  General  |  1 Comment

Medical research is a conversation between the new and the old. What I mean by that is the findings of new studies need to be compared to previous ones, because most times the reason for doing the research in the first place is to answer questions or test theories raised by previous research. Understanding the historical context of a particular research finding is vital. If you don’t know how a particular new finding compares to older ones you won’t understand the importance of the research. Unfortunately, journalists are less and less inclined to give readers that context when they write about the newest and shiniest medical research. The result is public confusion, and it leads to misleading headlines.

Journalists also like conflict, so they tend to write their stories from the angle that a particular medical finding contradicts a previous one, even when it really doesn’t. Journalists also want to write about unusual, unexpected things. As the saying goes, dog bites man isn’t news — man bites dog is hot stuff.

The result of the Babel of medical journalism is that many people just ignore it all, assuming (not unreasonably) that another study may come out the next year contradicting whatever exciting finding this year brings. Fat is bad! No, fat is not so bad! Coffee is bad! Except when it isn’t! And so on.

There is an excellent editorial in a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine by Susan Dentzer, a respected health journalist and editor of Health Affairs, about the pitfalls of all of this and how it might be improved. She describes the problem this way: “Journalists sometimes feel the need to play carnival barkers, hyping a story to draw attention to it. This leads them to frame a story as new or different — depicting study results as counterintuitive or a break from the past — if they want it to be featured prominently or even accepted by an editor at all.”

Her solution is pretty simple — journalists need to supply readers with the context, the shades of grey, that are part of interpreting the results of any research study. I don’t really expect that to happen much. The demands of the 24/7 news cycle are too overwhelming. Readers, though, can read more critically, which is one reason I’ve been posting in this blog about how to interpret the validity of research data.

Gary Schwitzer, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism, keeps an excellent blog about these issues. I check it frequently (he has useful things to say about the Dentzer piece). You can also find a link to it on the right on my blogroll list.

How to read the health news

June 5, 2008  |  General  |  No Comments

Medical news is all around us, fed by, among other things, the insatiable needs of the round-the-clock news cycle. Much of the news tends to be either scary or hopefully uplifting. Thus we read of a new cancer threat or a new hazard of daily life, or of some new wonder cure. How good is this news coverage? Can we rely on it for useful information?

Unfortunately, it turns out that much of the news coverage of medical issues is not very good, and some of it is unreliable or misleading. One pernicious difficulty with medical reporting is that medical news, like all news, needs to be news. So, just as dog-bites-man is not newsworthy but man-bites-dog is, medical reporting is skewed toward reporting the scary or the fabulous. What many don’t know is that this tendency is not limited to the popular media; it is also a problem with medical research in general. Scientific journals also exhibit a well-known bias toward publishing positive findings — research that shows something new or some new treatment. A scientist who demonstrates the absence of something, negative findings, has a much more difficult time in getting her work published.

Gary Schwitzer, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota, maintains an interesting and useful website called Health News Review. There he and his colleagues offer you detailed analyses of how the media reports the medical news. It is in many ways a sobering report card, because much of the reporting is not very good. On the other hand, it shows simple and clear ways the reporting could improve. Reading these critiques is also a good way for you to understand yourself how to read and interpret the medical news.