Gary Schwitzer has been a medical news journalist in local television, the head of CNN’s medical reporting unit and editor-in-chief of the Mayo Clinic’s consumer health Web site.
But since moving into academe in 2001—he is assistant professor and director of graduate studies for the master’s program in health journalism at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication—he has become an outspoken critic of the state of medical news reporting.
Last year, rather than just speaking out about how reporters could improve their work, he started a Web site, www.healthnewsreview.org. Medical experts scrutinize stories from major U.S. media outlets, grading the work on a five-star system that takes into account everything from the sources of the information to whether the cost of treatment is mentioned.
The reviews are written dispassionately, but they can be harsh. In mid-February, U.S. News & World Report got just one star for a report on a drug used in some coronary artery bypass grafts, while the newsmagazine’s report on a new diet drug earned two stars. A Los Angeles Times report on the same diet drug got four stars. ABC’s “Good Morning America” garnered three stars for its report on a genetic test that predicts whether a woman who has had breast cancer will relapse, partly because reviewers thought it didn’t put the new treatment in the context of existing options; it also did not include a disclaimer that there is “no evidence that the test, in combination with treatment, results in better outcomes, such as decreased mortality or improved quality of life.”
Modeled after similar sites based in Australia and Canada, healthnewsreview.org is funded by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making, a Boston-based nonprofit that encourages patients to become active participants in choosing their medical treatment and not just defer to their doctors. Mr. Schwitzer said the foundation officials, who contributed start-up money of just under $100,000 and other services such as Web hosting, liked the idea of informing not only journalists but also consumers via the site.
The stories reviewed are those that include “any product or idea about which a claim might be made,” said Mr. Schwitzer, whether it is how well a treatment works or a new drug device, operation, screening test or vitamin. As of mid-February, the site had reviewed nearly 300 stories.
Stories are identified by graduate research assistants, whose work is supported by the foundation grant; they then are reviewed by Mr. Schwitzer and two of the medical experts on the foundation’s panel, a physician and a non-physician with a background in health issues. Many of the experts come from medical schools. The 25 experts the foundation draws upon, who were already working with the foundation before the Web site was launched, are screened to be free of professional conflicts of interest, Mr. Schwitzer said.
Each story is graded on 10 criteria. Mr. Schwitzer is particularly concerned that stories quantify costs, as well as harms and benefits, in absolute rather than relative terms. “Disease-mongering,” or exaggerating the prevalence or seriousness of a condition, is another factor testers look for, along with whether the stories discuss availability of treatment. “To a large degree, many news stories do have misplaced priorities and set an agenda, which would make you think we’re kids in a candy store,” where every treatment works well and is available to all, Mr. Schwitzer said.
The site received an award of distinction at the 2006 Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism. Perhaps more important, Mr. Schwitzer said he has received “amazingly little negative reaction” from journalists themselves. Despite the number of low-starred reviews on his site, he said, he has received just five negative comments from journalists.
One complaint Mr. Schwitzer received is that TV reporting shouldn’t be held to the same standards as print. He hasn’t broken it down into absolute numbers, he said, but among the first 200 stories rated, television stories “across the board” rated worse than print stories. And both print and TV, he said, fall down when it comes to discussing the costs of various treatments.
Most often, Mr. Schwitzer said, he hears from news organizations such as public radio and women’s magazines, which aren’t being reviewed and want to be. “I think some people really think they’re doing a good job and want the public pat on the back,” he said, while others “don’t know what kind of job they’re doing” because their beat reporters are more knowledgeable than their editors. And some journalists, he said, “are just curious about ‘how do I stack up.'”
Asked about the three-star rating for the “Good Morning America” breast cancer report, ABC spokeswoman Bridgette Maney said: “It’s unfair to judge ‘Good Morning America’ and its medical reporting on this one report. ‘GMA’ prides itself on bringing viewers important and useful medical news in the mornings and is blessed to have Emmy Award-winning ABC News Medical Editor Dr. Tim Johnson leading the morning program’s cutting-edge coverage of the latest medical news each and every day.”
Mr. Schwitzer said he welcomes all feedback. “I want this to be an open conversation,” he said. “I don’t want this to be media-bashing. If we’re doing something wrong, if our criteria are wrong, educate us.”
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