health news headlines

How to Evaluate News Coverage of Health Stories & Studies

By OBOS Navigating Health Care Contributors | October 1, 2011
Last Revised on Aug 3, 2014

“Tequila Plant May Help Fight Bone Loss”

“U.S.-Developed Vaccine ‘Could Eliminate’ Breast Cancer”

“Extract May Help Treat Bladder Infection”

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“Abortion Pill Might Help Battle Breast Cancer”

What do these recent headlines from major U.S. news outlets have in common? They report on studies that were conducted in mice, not humans.

Overzealous or oversimplified headlines are only one problem when it comes to the media’s coverage of health news. In a 2009 survey of health journalists commissioned by the Kaiser Family Foundation, journalists overwhelmingly said that budget constraints have seriously hurt the quality of health coverage and that pressure to be the first to break a story leads to fewer opportunities to conduct thorough research before filing a story.

Respondents felt this leads to more “quick hit” stories about new treatments or technological breakthroughs rather than in‑depth coverage of health care policy and complex health issues.

Nearly half (44 percent) of staff journalists participating in the survey said that their organizations sometimes or frequently based stories on press releases without substantial additional reporting.

And perhaps most shockingly, 11 percent of staff journalists said that their organizations sometimes or frequently allowed advertisers, the sales staff, or sponsors to influence story selection or content.

What’s a news reader to do? HealthNewsReview.org evaluates health care journalism, including advertising, marketing, public relations and other messages that may influence consumers. The site’s reviewers examine whether and how a story answers these 10 questions:

1. What’s the total cost?

2. How often do benefits occur?

3. How often do harms occur?

4. How strong is the evidence?

5. Is this condition exaggerated?

6. Are there alternative options?

7. Is this really a new approach?

8. Is it available to me?

9. Who’s promoting this?

10. Do they have a conflict of interest?

Visit HealthNewsReview.org for ratings on nearly 2,000 health stories in major news outlets. You’ll also find more tips for understanding stories and a list of independent experts.