Among the many excellent sessions at the Project LEAD Workshop
I attended two weekends ago was a talk by Dr. Karen Carlson, who happens to be an expert on women's health. She's the Director of Women's Health Associates at Massachusetts General Hospital, an assistant professor at (and graduate of) Harvard Medical School, and a co-author of The New Harvard Guide to Women's Health
But Dr. Carlson's talk wasn't actually about women's health. Instead, she told us about a very cool organization called Health News Review
, which focuses on the quality of health and medical journalism—a subject dear to my heart.
Health News Review grades individual stories from about 60 different news outlets
, following a model that was pioneered in Australia
and then replicated in Canada
. It's funded by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making
Reviewers judge stories on 10 specific criteria, and their assessments are translated into scores on a scale of zero to five stars. The criteria include everything from whether a story is guilty of "disease mongering" to the fundamentals of reporting. Is it based on just a press release, or were additional sources interviewed? Do those sources have any potential conflicts of interest? Is the new treatment/test/product/procedure really new? Is it even available to most people? What does it cost? What are the potential harms? Are there alternatives?
You can browse a list of graded stories by news organization
to see how your favorite newspaper or wire service has fared. You can also check on past grades for television news stories, although the organization won't be reviewing TV news programs anymore
—they've basically decided that it no longer makes sense because TV news is so bad and isn't getting any better.
Dr. Carlson told us that Health News Review shares its reviews with the news organizations—providing feedback to encourage those organizations to improve their reporting. In many cases, she said, the editors and journalists appreciate that feedback and strive to do better. But with TV news, apparently, that's not the case. Some stats:
The site has reviewed nearly 900 stories by 60 news organizations and has given only 40 zero-star scores. Of those stories—the worst of the worst—ABC, CBS, and NBC account for 68%. And the same networks account for only two
of the 108 five-star scores Health News Review has awarded in the past three and a half years.
Think about how many people get their health and medical news from TV news programs. Then think how damning it must be for a group whose sole mission is to improve media coverage to have given up on such an influential sector of the media.
Imagine if Jon Stewart decided that FOX and CNN and MSNBC were lost causes, no longer worth the resources of The Daily Show
—that shaming and satirizing them was futile. How much more superficial, hypocritical, and bombastic would those networks' coverage become?
Check out the site. Read with a critical eye. And don't get your medical news from television, no matter how urgent the promos sound.
Sensationalism may sell, but you don't have to buy.