< Health News Gets a Checkup


Friday, May 05, 2006

BOB GARFIELD: Rarely does an evening newscast not contain a hot piece of health news � a new drug that works, an old theory debunked, a fresh take on a standard treatment. But not all health news is created equal. Important, well-sourced medical stories are out there, but so is shoddy journalism and fear-mongering. What's a non-M.D. to do? Go to healthnewsreview.org and find out what experts think of the story you just read or saw on TV. Last month, Gary Schwitzer launched the site, which grades health stories from the major papers and news networks. Schwitzer is a professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota and he joins me now. Gary, welcome back to OTM.

GARY SCHWITZER: Thanks for having me on again, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: Nearly a year ago on this show, you said, quote, "I would say that watching television health news today has actually become an unhealthy act. It's filled with one-sided, incomplete information, lots of scares at one end of the spectrum, and then breakthroughs at the other end of the spectrum." I gather your analysis on that hasn't much changed.

GARY SCHWITZER: It hasn't but, you know, maybe my attitude has a bit. Some time over this past year I decided, you know, it's time to turn this around, it's time to do something constructive, to reach out and help folks in health journalism, not just in broadcast but in print. And that's what I think we're trying to do with this Health News Review website. But whether journalists use this tool or not, and I hope and think that they will, I think consumers will find this very helpful, if they can look at the way stories have been done, look at the way we evaluate them, and improve their own critical thinking of some of the claims that are made in health care and made in health care journalism.

BOB GARFIELD: I'm on your website now, and let's start with the lowest-ranked one � CBS News, two stars out of five. The story is about a breakthrough in a breast cancer drug. How did you find it wanting?

GARY SCHWITZER: Well, when you go into the reviews, you'll find our breakdown of 10 standardized criteria applied to all stories. So, in a nutshell, those are: How did the story do in making clear how available this idea was? Did it cover costs? Was it guilty at all of what we call disease-mongering or did it turn a normal state of health suddenly into a disease state? Did it have a grasp of the quality of the evidence, so that a randomized clinical trial has a lot more power to it than a single case study? Did it quantify the harms and the benefits of the idea? Did it seem to rely solely or largely on a news release? Did it have more than one source? Did it look at potential conflicts of interest in the sources? And, did it put this new idea into the context of existing options? So in that case that you're asking me about, the story was rated unsatisfactory because it didn't discuss costs, it was rated unsatisfactorily on evidence, and it also wasn't mentioned that this study hasn't been published or peer reviewed. In this case, this was a news conference convened by a federal government agency, the National Cancer Institute, and the drug company making the drug that was discussed in the trial.

BOB GARFIELD: Is it reasonable to expect any broadcast story on the evening news to be comprehensive and to satisfactorily fill out this checklist of yours in the, you know, paltry amount of time allotted to any story?

GARY SCHWITZER: Well, first of all, I don't accept the premise that it has to be a paltry amount of time. During rating sweeps periods, suddenly broadcasters find it very easy to devote more time to health stories and do more health stories. So they can allocate the time however they want. But we do have, I think, seven stories on the web site right now as we speak that got perfect five-star evaluations. One of them was done by a reporter I don't know at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and she did it in a story that had only 529 words to it. Now, I've done a word count on many broadcast health stories, and they start to approach 500 words. So you can't tell me you can't apply the same criteria to both media.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, what I don't see on your site is a whole lot of attention to local television stories where maybe some of the worst abuses occur. But I guess if you concentrate on the major newspapers and wire services, you can actually affect the whole ecology of health care reporting.

GARY SCHWITZER: I think you can. I would hope that some of the local media want to emulate the best practices that they see in some of the networks and in some of the bigger papers. And so in covering the top 50 papers, the three evening network newscasts and the Associated Press and the three weekly news magazines, I hope that we're covering the bases as well as we can. I will tell you this - as big as our team is, we are inundated with the reviews we're doing right now with the limited number, 60-some media, that we do cover.

BOB GARFIELD: It's a pretty substantial infrastructure you've built. Who's paying the bills?

GARY SCHWITZER: On the upper-left-hand corner of the website you'll see a credit to a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) foundation called The Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making, based in Boston, that is the sole support for this effort.

BOB GARFIELD: I just wanted to be clear, though. This is not some sort of shadow organization funded by AstraZeneca or Merck? They have no axe to grind?

GARY SCHWITZER: I would shut down the site before I would accept pharma money in such an effort. It won't happen on my watch.

BOB GARFIELD: Gary, thank you so much.

GARY SCHWITZER: You're welcome, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: Gary Schwitzer is the founder of healthnewsreview.org and a professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]