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New research creates a useful guide for journalists covering health stories

June 4th, 2008

Dr Petra

A new study just published in the open access (i.e. free) journal PLoS Medicine has taken 500 health stories from the US media and assessed how journalists cover them. The results are interesting, although not very surprising.

The analysis by Gary Schwitzer (an Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication) found:
• 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.
• A US Web site project,, modelled after similar efforts in Australia and Canada, evaluates and grades 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 ofalternative 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.

You can read the whole piece here and journalists, students and anyone with an interest in media coverage of health stories may be interested to see how stories are rated and critiqued. It may help inform your own practice – or the way you evaluate health news stories you read.

The research rightly points out that editors need to be brought on board in order to effect change, and correctly highlights how issues around time pressures can often lead to poor coverage.

If you are a journalist, as well as using this research as a guide to improve your research, you may like to stick the key areas of assessment up on your wall as questions to ask whenever you are sent a press release.

In fact I’m feeling so helpful today I’ve already written them out for you. Here you go….

- What are the cost issues raised by the product/innovation/package that I’ve been told about?

- Who would benefit from the product/innovation/package/scheme – how many people would benefit – and in what way(s)?

- Are there any harms arising from the product/innovation/package/scheme that I’ve been told about? What are they, who might they affect – and how? Consider a range of harms – great and small (and include economic, social, environmental, educational, cultural, physical and psychological harms). Is it likely that the presence of the product/innovation/package/scheme would benefit certain parts of the population to the detriment of others?

- You’ve been told about this great new product/service/innovation/package/scheme – but how does it compare with existing ones? Is the information you’ve been sent describing something that is completely new or something that already exists elsewhere – if so, how does the existing product/service/innovation/package/scheme perform? What does the existing scientific evidence base tell you about the new product/service/innovation/package/scheme?

- Are there any potential conflicts of interest that underlie the product/service/innovation/scheme/package? That might be the person fronting the scheme has undisclosed shares in the company behind it, or a scientist taking money to promote a product that isn’t truly evidence based.

- What do trusted, reliable and independent sources have to say about the product/service/innovation/scheme/package?

- Have you checked for disease mongering? (This means ensuring you don’t label something as a clinical condition when it isn’t one for example hyping up a lack of sexual interest into a ‘desire disorder’ or men feeling a bit off colour into ‘man flu’). If you are encouraged to describe something using a disease model use the steps above to assess why you are being asked to write in this way.

- Check out the quality of any research a study/story is based on. That can include demanding to see data/analysis, speaking to key researchers, or checking research reports/publications. If you don’t feel confident in doing this yourself get someone independent to check over the information for you.

- If something is described as ‘new’ verify this is truly the case.

- Check if the product/service/innovation/scheme/package is actually available. Sometimes journalists are told about something when research is still ongoing, trials are in an early stage or something is just someone’s idea. This happens to get you to whip up interest and create a potential market. Report things clearly, so if something is in the early trial stages mention the need for caution, don’t report as though something is fresh and available.

- Don’t just stick to the press release. Use this as your launching board to ask questions, be critical and dig about. Apart from being what journalism should be about this also lets you have more opportunities for wider story ideas.

Although this research paper in PLoS Medicine is about healthcare stories the same guidance and method of analysis applies whatever the topic. So whether it’s something you’re getting from the newswire or a press release sent to you by a PR company you ought to be checking it out carefully. Particularly the ‘lite’ or ‘fun’ stories which at best could be taking up space where something more useful could run, at worst could be promoting an idea that’s harmful or dangerous.

Of course we know people will run dodgy stories because they’re busy, under pressure or not qualified in critical appraisal and so cannot check the accuracy of what they’re sent. Now, however, these excuses don’t apply because there is a clearly written guide on where problems lie – and how to ensure you don’t fall into the poor writing trap.

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