Thursday, November 25, 2010

Who writes health news?

In times of financial difficulties, health reporters are usually the first to be let go. This is especially true if they actually know something about health (it makes them more expensive). Financial cutbacks mean that media outlets have to rely on news agencies or have non-specialist journalists report health. The authors of "Does it matter who writes medical news stories" are familiar with such problems (and their consequences), since they are reviewers of health news stories for the Australian Media Doctor site.

Media doctor sites are the media's health news watch dogs. They rate health stories according to criteria like "Quantified the benefits of intervention" and "Did not rely heavily on a media release". Today there are several media doctor sites in Canada, Hong-Kong, and United States (called Healthnewsreview, but works according to the same principles.

However, my favorite health stories watchdog is the British NHS "Behind the news" service: it takes a news story and discusses its sources, the type of study behind the story (cohort, double-blind, etc.), how it was conducted, the results and their interpretation, and the conclusion. All that in everyday language. It's brilliant.

Back to the study at hand: over the years (February 2004 to March 2009) 1,337 stories from 12 Australian media outlets have been reviewed. Out of those, 320 stories didn't have a byline; 193 were written by nonspecialist journalists; 415 came from news agencies (Australian Associated Press [AAP], Associated Press [AP], Agence France Presse [AFP], and Reuters) and 39 came from foreign media outlets (BBC, The New York Times, Washington Post, etc.); 142 stories were written by health/science journalists, and 228 stories were written by specialist health journalists (journalists who had 10 or more stories posted on the Media Doctor web site during the period of the study).

(Figure based on the paper's categories of authorship).

Quality speaking, stories by specialized health journalists scored the highest (59.6) while stories without bylines had the lowest score (44.1; you know it's bad when nobody wants to take credit for it). From the news agencies, AP scored highest on quality.

Is there a solution for low-quality health journalism?

The authors suggest, of course, that future journalists should be trained better regarding evidence-based medicine while they're still in college, and that major media outlets should invest in specialized health journalists. However, since the authors are aware these suggestions are costly, they suggest that some of the responsibility for good health reporting should lie with research institutions, funding bodies, and the researchers themselves, who all have to supply the media with accurate and balanced information about their studies. They see the promotion of good science as part of the requirements from those conducting health research, and believe better scientists-journalists collaboration will lead to better health reporting.

Wilson, A., Robertson, J., McElduff, P., Jones, A., & Henry, D. (2010). Does It Matter Who Writes Medical News Stories? PLoS Medicine, 7 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000323

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  1. Hadas,
    Excellent work! I have a blog about this very topic and how it can lead to a severely misinformed public. The problem i see is that not only is the journalism of poor quality but the audience doesn't know the difference.
    Stat Girl

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