Monday, June 09, 2008

Dangerous to Your Health? Media Coverage of Health Issues

By Randy Hendrickson

The Public Library of Science (PLoS) recently reported a study of the quality of media coverage of health issues, including treatments, tests, products, and procedures, in the United States. The study (“How Do U.S. Journalists Cover Treatments, Tests, Products, and Procedures: An Evaluation of 500 Stories” by Gary Schwitzer at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism) evaluated how U. S. journalists are reporting health issues. Over a two-year period, the study rated the accuracy, balance, and completeness of news stories from a variety of media. A rating instrument that included 10 criteria was used to evaluate each of the 500 news stories. These criteria look at how well each story:

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
7. Reviews the study methodology or quality of evidence
8. Establishes the true novelty of the idea
9. Establishes the availability of the product or procedure
10. Appears not to rely solely on a news release

This study showed that “….journalists usually fail to discuss costs, the quality of evidence, the existence of alternative options, and the absolute magnitude of potential benefits and harms.” This raises the issue of the quality of the information that reaches consumers. Because this information can have a dramatic, and possibly harmful, effect on consumers, Schwitzer and colleagues are working with news organizations and editorial executives to make them aware of these problems and to correct the imbalanced view that is often portrayed. The results of each evaluation were emailed to the journalist who wrote the article or news segment. The shortcomings of the news stories were mainly attributed to a lack of time and space. Those journalists who had more time to research and write the articles and more space in which to publish them or airtime tended to produce more balanced and complete stories. “We hope that our 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 consumer population.”

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