How Well Do U.S. Journalists Cover Health News?

By Christine Cupaiuolo — June 3, 2008

Daily news stories about new health treatments, tests, products and procedures may be harmful to your health.

That’s the conclusion of a new study published in PLoS Medicine.

An analysis conducted by Health News Review of 500 stories by major U.S. print and broadcast outlets found that between 62 and 77 percent of stories published during a 22-month period “failed to adequately address costs, harms, benefits, the quality of the evidence, and the existence of other options when covering health care products and procedures.”

Here’s a handy table that shows the failures and a few semi-successes.

On the plus side, 70 percent of stories avoided “disease mongering” and 70 percent discussed availability of the new approach.

The study includes examples of stories that scored poorly and offers a prescription to do better: “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.”

The study’s lead author is Gary Schwitzer, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota School who publishes Health News Review. The Review monitors health coverage by the top 50 U.S. newspapers (by circulation); the Associated Press; TIME, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report; and morning and evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC.

For more reading, see a related blog post at the Wall Street Journal and this story from Minnesota Public Radio.

Plus: A related PLoS editorial looks at the origins of unbalanced reporting and the role of medical journals. The editorial concludes:

Schwitzer’s alarming report card of the trouble with medical news stories is thus a wake-up call 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. The good news is that there are signs of change.

Two years ago, Ray Moynihan and David Henry guest-edited a special PLoS Medicine theme issue on disease mongering, the corporate creation of new diseases in order to sell treatments. As they report in this month’s issue, over the last two years there has been a growing number of high-profile articles on disease mongering, suggesting that “scepticism is building within the mainstream media.” The Wall Street Journal, for example, recently ran a story on a new drug for restless legs syndrome under the headline “How Glaxo Marketed a Malady to Sell a Drug.”

Read the essay, “Disease Mongering Is Now Part of the Global Health Debate.”

2 responses to “How Well Do U.S. Journalists Cover Health News?”

  1. As a journalist, while it saddens me that health issues don’t receive adequate coverage, I am also happy to hear that 70 percent of stories avoid “disease mongering.” I think that’s when things get dangerous. Remember the bird flu scare a few years ago? Everyone got all concerned and worried over nothing. The media propagates fear about crime, but I’m glad it tries to refrain from doing so with disease. That leads to nothing but panic, and then more misinformation.

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