The tsunami of not-ready-for-primetime health care news

By | October 16, 2018

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Gary Schwitzer is founder and publisher of  He tweets as @garyschwitzer.

On one recent day – a quite normal day in the life of our team – we watched the latest wave of the tsunami of not-ready-for-primetime medical research news coming in to drown the American public.

Jill Adams, who is on the board of the National Association of Science Writers, did her daily search of eligible news stories for our team to review.  In her first morning sweep, she came up with only two eligible stories:

Omega-3 Supplements May Ease Anxiety, on the New York Times Well blog.  Excerpt: Over all, omega-3 supplements were associated with significant relief from anxiety symptoms, but some groups benefited more than others.”

When you study health care news coverage every day as I have done for 45 years, you are often given pause to step back and think, as Vince Lombardi made us think, “What the hell’s going on out here?”

More precisely, think about all of the issues in health care and medicine that are newsworthy.  Think about what journalists could be doing with their time on any given day to address those issues.  And then think about how and why these stories were chosen on the menu that would be served up to news consumers and health care consumers on that particular day.

This little microcosmic step-back is one we could take every day.  It helps explain why the public is confused and turned off by a lot of what they read.

This is not carefully considered news judgment in action.  It is simply sitting at your desk and regurgitating something about the journal article du jour.  Sometimes, as on this day, it is simply regurgitating PR news release-du-jour information.

One of these came from the newspaper that proudly boasted, “All the news that’s fit to print.”  The other came from a news organization that boasts that it “specializes in producing evidence-based health content” and is seen on more than 5,000 websites.

The New York Times Well blog is often unwell

The New York Times devoted all of 216 words to the Omega-3 story. There isn’t a great deal of consumer education and helpful information you can convey about a complicated study in 216 words – and the Times didn’t.  Still, even within a very short story, the reporting managed to insert a significant amount of confusion.

  • The headline stated that Omega-3 supplements may ease anxiety. And the first sentence stated “Omega-3 supplements may help reduce anxiety symptoms.” All of the emphasis was on supplements, not on eating fatty fish.
  • Later, though, the story pointed out subgroups of people who did not benefit from supplements.
  • And the lead author steered people toward fish, not supplements, saying supplements may not be necessary: “Eating fatty fish that includes EPA and DHA is more natural.”

You could understand if a reader’s head was spinning after that shift in framing. The story offered no independent evaluation of the 16-study meta-analysis.  To its 216 word total, it would have been much better if it had added just a few more, lifted directly from the journal article describing the study:

Copy someone else’s work and get paid to put your name on it

Every single word in the HealthDay story on the diabetes drug and smog appears to come directly from a Northwestern University news release.  The quotes that appear didn’t come from a HealthDay writer interviewing those people; they came from the news release.  Why not just label the story: “Northwestern University news of the day”?  In fact, the Northwestern news release contained much more explanatory information than the journalism piece did.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics states that journalists should: Verify information before releasing it.  Use original sources whenever possible.  (There was no indication that any of the news release information was verified.  And “original sources” does not mean “copy from a news release.”)

We’ve written before about HealthDay rehashing news releases.  Another time we wrote, “It’s almost as if readers are flipping a coin any time they click on a HealthDay piece. “Heads” may lead them to real journalism that carefully examines claims and balances them with an independent perspective. “Tails” may lead them to rehashed PR that is likely to exaggerate benefits, minimize or ignore harms, and gloss over key limitations in the evidence.”

HealthDay can continue to brag that it “specializes in producing evidence-based health content” but readers should ask themselves if anyone has evaluated the evidence in question.

We’ve helped start a reader revolution that won’t go away

Even if, as appears inevitable, we cease regular daily review of health care news at the end of 2018, the kind of scrutiny that we have fostered won’t go away.  We believe we have helped spawn a mini reader revolution that will continue to apply healthy skepticism to shoddy health care journalism and PR and advertising and marketing messages.

News organizations and PR departments that choose to ignore the warning signs do so at great risk of their own further peril.  On many days the public isn’t getting what they want and need in health care journalism, and front office bean counters are seeing the results in declining circulation and rising reader dissatisfaction.  We believe we have provided a blueprint for the kind of health care journalism that people want and need.  Read our critiques.  Learn from them.  And stop the tsunami before it wipes away any remaining vestiges of credibility for shovelware, news release du jour health care news.

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