Ever wonder just how bad the American news media really are when it comes to reporting on new medical treatments? Have a look at HealthNewsReview.org, a new on-line service published by Gary Schwitzer, the director of the health journalism graduate program at the University of Minnesota (and, among other things, a former head of the medical news unit at CNN). HealthNewsReview.org employs a team of medical and public health experts to grade health news stories on a scale of zero to five stars based on accuracy, balance, and completeness. Each review is accompanied by a detailed commentary. HealthNewsReview.org gives special scrutiny to stories about new therapies, diagnostic procedures, health supplements, and investigational drugs – in short, the sorts of things likely to be hyped by industry and university PR offices.
So far, the results are not quite what you might imagine. If you rely solely on the New York Times for your health news, for example, you might want to think about getting another newspaper. Recent stories by Gina Kolata on the fat hormone leptin and Denise Grady on low-calorie diets and longevity received grades of only one star apiece; overall, the Times is doing worse than USA Today. Articles that were singled out for special praise, in contrast, included “Mood Machine,” an article on the vagus nerve stimulator (VNS) for depression written by Sandra G. Boodman in The Washington Post, and a article on bone marrow stem cells for heart repair written by Marie McCullough in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Rather more predictable is the dismal state of television news, which has received almost uniformly poor grades. The worst ratings of all – zero stars – go to a Minneapolis television news story about a “key discovery” in diabetes research at the University of Minnesota, and a feature on ABC World News Tonight hyping a GlaxoSmithKline migraine drug.