Why HealthNewsReview.org Gave Up On TV

My grandfather had chickens. Not chickens in the city, but, like, 100+ semi-feral chickens running around in a sort of anarchic "free range" on five acres of overgrown Christmas tree farm.

In other words, my grandfather ran a very nice coyote buffet.

God knows, the man tried–waging a Warner Bros.-worthy battle against the coyotes through most of my childhood. But as he got older, he kind of became frustrated at the lack of real progress and just gave up.

This story does have a point. Promise. I found out recently that HealthNewsReview.org–a fairly self-explanatory organization dedicated to weeding good health reporting from bad–would no longer be reviewing stories taken from television news. But where does that leave us chickens? I called up Gary Schwitzer, the seasoned journalist and professor behind HealthNewsReview to find out.


Let's start with the basics, where did HealthNewsReview.org come from?

I became enamored with an Australian effort to which I give endless credit–Media Doctor. There are now Media Doctor sites in Canada and Hong Kong, as well. As soon as I saw the concept I thought, "Oh my god, why did the Hell did we let the Aussies beat us to this?" I tracked down the Australian researcher who originated the idea and he was extremely gracious and said I could copy the format. But I changed the name, though. I'm a journalist and I was sensitive about other journalists having knee-jerk defensive reactions to the name. I thought Media Doctor would imply something was broken and needed fixing.

It got to be hourly briefings on patient urine output…rather than reporting on evidence and tech assessment, and cost, and access and all the things that now become our criteria on Health News Review…

But isn't something broken?

There are problems, yes. I worked in daily health news in Milwaukee and Dallas, and for CNN. I walked away with a lot of frustration. It was mostly the CNN experience that frustrated me. In the early days of CNN, we had this tremendous, exciting opportunity. The channel could be place to go in-depth with background and be analytical and contextual. But then the management side swung the other way and preferred to be the wire service of the air–take anything happening anywhere and report it with a quick turnaround. That's the continued recipe for disaster in my eyes. Into that was thrown the maelstrom of artificial heart experiments in the early 1980s. I saw how all of the incentives were to just have the information everyone else had, but more often. It got to be hourly briefings on patient urine output and stuff like that, rather than reporting on evidence and tech assessment, and cost, and access and all the things that now become our criteria on HealthNewsReview. We flood news consumers with this stuff and it does more harm than good.

We become complicit cheerleaders, and not independent vetters of sensational claims. When you think about the environment we're in right now, journalists have to take some of the blame for the inability of us, as a people, to have a meaningful health care reform discussion. We've created this sense of a pill for every ill. And God help you if you talk about comparative effectiveness research that may raise questions about efficacy, because you better not take that pill away from me or you're rationing.

Some cancer screening tests, like for prostate cancer, are an example of this, right?

Yes. You get news stories that promote screening outside the boundaries of evidence. You'll be bombarded with subjective, passionate, crusading comments that really say, "Let the evidence be damned. I've had this and it saved my life." And we just have to drop back and have a discussion about evidence. There's so much uncertainty that people need to get involved and make the decision for themselves. It's a mistake if people are hearing that they shouldn't be screened. But right now, you only hear the benefits. And there are potential harms.

Is TV really worse on this than other types of media?

TV is terrible, especially on the morning shows–just awful awful imbalanced, cheerleading, crusading crap day, after day, after day. But the rest of the media isn't off the hook. I compare what I hear from some journalists to what I hear from some doctors, "Yeah I may go on free trips and speaker fees from big pharma but I'm not influenced. I'm worried about my colleagues, but I'm fine." Similarly some journalists look at what we've done and say, "We don't do any of these mistakes." But I'm telling you, 70% of almost 900 stories we've reviewed fail to discuss costs, harms, and benefits. Somebody has to take responsibility for that.

If everybody is flawed and good reporting is so important, why give up on TV news?

It's not that we're looking the other way on TV, but they don't care. They don't want to listen. We had a lead person at one network flat out say, "Don't even bother to notify me. I won't share your review with my staff, because it's unfair to apply the same criteria to us as to print." That guy was praising of the effort before we'd launched. He saw our evaluation criteria and thought we were looking at the right stuff. But when it comes down to it, they don't like feeling like someone is telling them how to write. And that has to end. If you can't do health reporting right, it's OK to just stop reporting on new tech and discoveries, because you may be doing more harm than good.

Where does this leave news consumers, though? Does this mean HealthNewsReview is more for journalists than for the people who read their work?

Absolutely not. In fact, we're undergoing a complete site redesign to make it abundantly clear that the site is for consumers, as well. We want consumers to see that the way we evaluate health news stories is the same way they can evaluate claims coming from any source. They can use the same 10 criteria we apply to the review of stories. We're adding new sections to the redesigned site to emphasize why each of the 10 criteria matter. All along, in fact, I thought that if journalists ignored our work (which, for the most part, they haven't), that consumers would still benefit from our scrutiny of claims.

The thing is, though, we have limited resources. We will continue to comment on TV, but I'm not going to go through the time resource drain of manually transcribing broadcasts and having three different people apply criteria, as we did before we threw in the towel, only to have the TV reporters explicitly tell us that they'll be ignoring it.

Sad TV image courtesy Flickr user aprillynn77, via CC.