April 20, 2006

Grading Health Journalism

Gary Schwitzer, the publisher of, talks to Gelf about his new website that monitors medical coverage in the media.

Sarah Arnquist

Headlines hyping the latest medical advances and discoveries for better health intend to keep consumers informed, but instead often leave them confused. In a rush to tell the public about the latest sexy scientific studies, members of the media often fail to give the whole story.

Gary Schwitzer
Courtesy University of Minnesota
Gary Schwitzer, the publisher of
A study published in 2000 in the New England Journal of Medicine quantified this problem. Researchers studied five years worth of U.S. TV and newspaper stories about three drugs and found that 53 percent of the newspaper and television stories failed to mention any of the drugs' potential side effects. The media stories also over-stated or exaggerated the effectiveness of the drugs, and failed to disclose potential conflicts of interest in the experts who were interviewed. These failures exist in many other types of health-reporting, as well. For example, Gelf has noted several conflicting reports about which foods are associated with cancer and cancer prevention.

That's where Gary Schwitzer comes in. Schwitzer, the former head of the medical news unit at CNN and the founder of the Mayo Clinic's consumer health website, is the publisher of Launched in late April, the site grades health-related coverage in the U.S. media. After Schwitzer and his team identify relevant print articles and television news segments, a team of doctors from the site's funding organization grades the coverage with 10 criteria. Good marks go to stories that use multiple sources, double-check for source conflicts of interest, and explain the side effects and costs. The reviewers also check that an article assesses the quality of the evidence and quantifies the harm and benefits of a product or treatment.

The bestrated coverage, like a recent AP story on less-invasive ways to replace heart valves, receives five stars. The worst, like a New York Times piece on the relationship between a low-calorie diet and long life, garner far fewer. Schwitzer, now a professor at the University of Minnesota Health Journalism program, talked with Gelf about the origins of the new site, who he thinks will benefit from it, and the symptoms of "white coat syndrome."

Gelf Magazine: Why did you create a website to review the quality of health journalism?

Gary Schwitzer: My whole career has been in health journalism. I just entered academia five years ago before that I had worked for more than 30 years in health journalism so I knew what the issues were. I learned about an Australian web site called Media Doctor and I just drooled over it. I decided that's what we needed in this country.

GM: Why does health journalism need its own reviewing website?

GS: The topics are complex and the terminology can be difficult. I think a lot of journalists might suffer from "white coat syndrome" where they defer to any white coat with a couple degree letters after their name. I think sometimes medical journalists don't get the training needed to question everything. So that's why we push people to include information about costs, conflicts of interest in sources, to not settle for one source, to quantify the benefits and costs, and to put this in the context of alternatives.

GM: Is the site fair to journalists. given the barriers they face like time and space constraints?

GS: Yes, I think it's abundantly fair. I do welcome and embrace a discussion about our criteria. I'm the publisher and I would state early, loud, and clear that I am terribly sensitive to the pressures that exist in real newsrooms today. Nonetheless, that gives no one any excuse for not pursuing excellence, and that's what we're trying to shine the light on in our criteria.

GM: Have you heard back from any of the writers you've reviewed so far?

GS: I've heard more disappointment for people who don't see themselves reviewed. I heard from somebody at the AP who was relieved to see she got an average of four stars. I know there's going to be some disappointment. I hope there's not resentment because it's not the tone we intend when we extend our constructive criticism.

GM: How do you choose which stories get reviewed?

GS: We review the nation's top 50 circulation papers and each day look at 10 of them. So every newspaper is only looked at once a week. In addition, each night we look at the newscasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC. Each week we look at Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. We only look at stories that make a claim of efficacy and safety.

GM: What is the turnaround time of the reviews?

GS: The turnaround time has been too slow, but we're working today on our second day to feverishly get some stories turned around about the breast cancer drug Raloxifene and I think we'll make it. When we launched the site my ideal was to have a three- to four-day turnaround.

GM: Will that be fast enough to interrupt the news cycle and stop the proliferation of potentially misleading stories around the country?

GS: I don't think we're ready to go there yet. We'd be satisfied if the terrific thousands of people covering health care topics could do it better and they should continue to do it. I don't think we'll get that turnaround quick enough. I trust and have faith in journalists that they're going to want to improve, and if they see that we are unbiased and helpful and constructive and they will change themselves and we don't need to.

GM: Do the reviewers get paid?

GS: They do. Our reviewers were already doing work for the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making. The foundation has added this task of reviewing news stories on top of their existing duties.

GM: Who is the site intended for?

GS: I see two primary targets: Journalists who want to learn and improve and who aren't getting this kind of feedback in their newsrooms, and second, consumers who don't know what to think in the health reports they now see. I can also see health-care providers referring patients to the website. I've heard from a number of physicians already that say they might.

GM: How does this website help consumers?

GS: I think there are stories that hurt consumers now. When there are stories that don't put new ideas into context; when there are stories that don't disclose potential conflicts of interest, when there are stories that rely on only one source, those hurt consumers.

I've talked with thousands of sick people over the years who have told me how news stories have hurt them by raising false expectations and promulgating hope. By reaching consumers directly with some education about how to scrutinize and analyze stories on their own they'll become better consumers of news and of health care.

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Article by Sarah Arnquist

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