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Critiquing Media Coverage of Public Health Issues February 9, 2009

Posted by Liz Borkowski in Blogging.

In a study published in the open-access journal PLoS Medicine, University of Minnesota professor Gary Schwitzer reports on an evaluation of 500 US health news stories conducted by the nonprofit Health News Review. The findings don’t reflect well on our media:

… between 62%–77% of stories 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.

For instance, a New York Times study on resveratrol (a compound found in red wine) was deemed to be insufficiently critical of claims about the substance; the review of the article noted, “There is an important difference between the results from a few research studies in animals and demonstration of efficacy in people.” A U.S. News & World Report piece on knee replacement surgery was criticized for providing insufficient discussion of the surgery’s pros and cons and described as feeling “more like a puff piece for a top-rated hospital than a balanced look at a medical problem.”

Schwitzer’s piece lays out the criteria used to evaluate health news. A good article:

1. Adequately discusses costs.

2. Quantifies benefits.

3. Adequately explains and quantifies potential harms.

4. Compares the new idea with existing alternatives.

5. Seeks out independent sources and discloses potential conflicts of

6. Avoids disease mongering.

7. Reviews the study methodology or the quality of the evidence.

8. Establishes the true novelty of the idea.

9. Establishes the availability of the product or procedure.

10. Appears not to rely solely or largely on a news release.

How much of the health news we get from the mainstream media meets these standards?



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