May 29, 2008 Most medical news stories about health interventions fail to adequately address costs, harms, benefits, the quality of evidence, and the existence of other treatment options, finds a new analysis in this week's PLoS Medicine. The analysis was conducted by Gary Schwitzer from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Schwitzer publishes an online project called HealthNewsReview.org (http://www.HealthNewsReview.org) that evaluates and grades media stories about new health interventions, notifying journalists of their grades. The project monitors news coverage by the top 50 most widely circulated newspapers in the US; the most widely used wire service (Associated Press); the three leading newsweekly magazines--TIME, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report; and the ABC, CBS and NBC television network morning and evening newscasts. Each news story is given a grade from 1 to 10, according to a set of criteria that include whether a story adequately quantifies the benefits of an intervention, appraises the supporting evidence, and gives information on the sources of a story and the sources' competing interests.
For his analysis in PLoS Medicine, Schwitzer reviewed the ratings for 500 US health news stories that were published or aired over a period of almost two years, and found that 62%--77% of stories had major failings in the quality of reporting. Schwitzer gives examples of particularly poor reporting. ABC World News, for example, was graded only 2 out of 10 for a TV report about a new test for prostate cancer, a test that the show claimed was "more accurate" than existing tests. This poor grade reflected the fact that ABC World News failed to discuss the enormous controversies surrounding the risks and benefits of prostate cancer screening, failed to discuss any evidence that the new test was superior, and failed to mention that the principal investigator of the new test receives a share of the royalties received on sales of the test.
The high rate of inadequate reporting found in this study, says Schwitzer, "raises important questions about the quality of the information US consumers receive from the news media on these health news topics."
In an editorial discussing the analysis, the PLoS Medicine editors explore some of the reasons why the quality of health news reporting is often poor, including reporters' inadequate training in understanding health research, the tendency of the 24-hour news cycle towards sensationalism, and the "complicit collaboration" between scientists, reporters, and medical journals in hyping a new study.
"Schwitzer's alarming report card of the trouble with medical news stories is a wake-up call," say the editors "for all of us involved in disseminating health research--researchers, academic institutions, journal editors, reporters, and media organizations--to work collaboratively to improve the standards of health reporting."
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- Schwitzer G. How do US journalists cover treatments, tests, products, and procedures? An evaluation of 500 stories. PLoS Med, 2008; 5(5): e95 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0050095
- The PLoS Medicine Editors. False hopes, unwarranted fears: The trouble with medical news stories. PLoS Med, 2008; 5(5): e118 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0050118
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