Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Academics Exaggerate, Journalists Regurgitate. What About Bloggers?

Thanks to my Twitter colleagues, I came across two disturbing pieces of information concerning healthcare journalism in the US.

The first was a WSJ Health Blog post about an Annals of Internal Medicine study of press releases that academic medical centers send out about their research (see "Academic Medical Centers Often Guilty of Research Hype"). The conclusion: The press releases "often promote research that has uncertain relevance to human health and do not provide key facts or acknowledge important limitations."

The second was a March 2009 Survey of American Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), which found -- among other things -- that just under half (44%) of staff journalists participating in the survey say that their organization sometimes (34%) or frequently (10%) bases stories on news releases without substantial additional reporting (see "State of Health Care Journalism").

Hence, my synopsis: "Academics Exaggerate, Journalists Regurgitate"

Only 39% of AHCJ members surveyed feel that the quality of the U.S. news media’s coverage of medical research is “excellent” or “good” (see chart below).

A couple of other key findings:
  • A majority of respondents (52%) say there is too much coverage of consumer or lifestyle health, and too little of health policy (70%), health care quality (70%), and health disparities (69%).
  • Nearly nine in ten (88%) survey respondents think health care coverage leans too much toward short “quick hit” stories, and two-thirds (64%) say the trend toward shorter stories has gotten worse in the past few years.
  • Nearly half (48%) think health journalism in the US is going in the wrong direction.
Do "citizen" journalists (ie, bloggers) do a better job?

It's an important question because more people may read health-related blogs than read traditional news media. Health bloggers include journalists, of course, but many are also ordinary citizens (eg, patients) as well as professionals with ties to the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries. If anything, bloggers may have more bias than traditional journalists and be more susceptible to influence.

If what I just said about health care bloggers is true, then the decline in the quality of health journalism will not be offset by the rise in health "bloggerism."


  1. As a former medical journalist, I often bristle when I read "blogger vs ink-stained wretches" rants, but this time, there may be an advantage for the bloggers. In the poor scores noted for HC journo, a big part of the problem is focusing on the specific event or the individual research report, rather that putting in context of the overall issue. The trouble is the overall issue is always complicated, with lots of details and counterbalancing factors -- the sort of thing you'll never capture in a broadcast piece or even a long-form news article. Heck, even feature-length documentaries skim the surface. The big pictures need book-length (at least) treatment.

    The advantage for bloggers -- IF they have the background knowledge to put the big picture together and the willingness to look beyond the news break of the moment -- is that they can hyperlink and cross-reference. A really good blog can provide the overview and link out for the subtext, allowing readers/responders to dive deeper where they need to. This is the unique factor that bloggers can contribute, which other media cannot replicate.

  2. Mario,

    I hope you had me in mind when you wrote your comment about bloggers :-)

  3. Got some response from my Twitter pals and came up with this for bloggers: they Commentate (as in provide commentary).

  4. Here's one problem, from someone who has been there: Pharmaceutical companies are famous for not making their researchers available to answer questions. Thus, journalists are forced to ask questions of PR flaks, who only have the most superficial knowledge of a subject and, what's more, are taught to spin a story in certain favorable ways. I think journalists need to take longer views of health stories, rather than be wedded to deadline-oriented needs for copy, no matter how tainted. Perhaps that would give companies time to get knowledgeable people on the phone even a day or two later. It would also offer the chance for neutral parties to view research and make a calm assessment of the quality and depth of the information. Perhaps blogs, then, do have a place, because they allow for the initial release of information followed by comments from various interested parties that, taken as a whole, would provide a better picture of the validity of research.


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