If there’s one thing our project has demonstrated unequivocally during its 12-plus-year run, it’s that many media messages about health care interventions are incomplete, imbalanced, and inaccurate – some of them egregiously so.
But how do we restore balance and improve the information reaching the public? That’s a question that can’t be answered without understanding why things are so skewed in the first place. And I think it’s a worthy topic to address in my year-end post – possibly my final post for a site that will soon stop publishing regularly due to lack of sufficient funding.
At every bend in the polluted stream that brings health news to the consumer, the prevailing current consistently favors sensational, one-sided, erroneous reporting that skimps on context and neglects limitations.
It starts at the research level, where academics are increasingly pressed to find new sources of funding to keep their research going, and where their career prospects increasingly depend on being cited by other researchers and published in top journals. The result? An ever-growing pressure to seek out publicity for published work and draw attention from funders and other scientists. It’s the kind of pressure that can lead one to stretch claims about the importance of a study and omit crucial caveats.
Similar forces are at work at press offices charged with promoting new research to a broad audience. Public universities are increasingly being asked to justify their research spending by tying it to tangible economic outcomes. Hospitals increasingly act as business ventures focused on the bottom line. Those financial concerns foster thinking that prioritizes marketing over meaning. We see it every day in a constant stream of shoddy, incomplete news releases that fail to provide basic context.
Individual journalists are not capable of reining in these powerful systemic forces. While some principled news organizations and journalists consistently produce top-notch work, much more common are stories that are hurriedly slapped together based on news releases.
News release-based reporting is an easy way for an ever-smaller pool of overstretched journalists to fill an ever-widening news hole. But it inevitably reflects the promotional framing of the vested interests who are making the announcements. It takes time, skill, and persistence to unspin these messages and report the information that readers truly need. And those items are in short supply in today’s understaffed and underfunded newsrooms.
Having spent the past four years as a full-time observer and analyst of health care news, I’m not optimistic that any of this is going to change in the near term. Even our tiny non-profit effort to push back against the hype – a proverbial David battling Goliath levels of poor-quality health care information bankrolled by billions in industry promotional spending – struggled and ultimately was unable to identify sustainable sources of independent funding. And it’s not clear who if anyone is going to fill the void that we leave behind.
What’s more, some of the worst offenses we documented — things like public universities touting cures for horrible illnesses based on no identifiable data — provoked little more than a shrug. Like our increasingly hateful political discourse, toxic messaging about health care is too often viewed as nothing out of the ordinary.
We’ve notched some important victories. We’ve educated and inspired many journalists and PR writers to make their articles more informative. I’ve been on the receiving end of many generous notes from reporters who’ve thanked us for our constructive criticism and said they’d strive to incorporate our feedback moving forward.
We’ve also convinced some news organizations to change their policies for the better. And we’ve shown consumers how the sausage is made and empowered them to think critically about what they read. That impact will outlive us.
But much more systemic change is needed in the front office of newsrooms, many of which still embrace a clickbait mentality. This inexplicably includes one of the most respected organizations in journalism — The New York Times — parts of which lead the way in the production of garbage health news.
Change is also needed at many university and hospital press offices; in the labs whose work they promote; and at the public relations wires who carry their news releases. Leaders in those organizations need to incentivize reporting of the accurate and unvarnished results of scientific research – instead of click-friendly messages that cast the work and institution in the best possible light.
The strategy of chasing clicks at any cost is a losing one, and it’s doing considerable damage. It’s training the public that they shouldn’t trust the news or the science that produces it. It generates short-term traffic and revenue by mortgaging the long-term credibility of our institutions.
If leaders at organizations distributing health news can’t pull us out of this downward spiral, perhaps readers will ultimately drive the change that improves our public discussion about health care.
With its unprecedented 12-year output of reviews, blog posts and podcasts that critically appraise health care media messages, our project has cultivated an audience that is hungry for quality health news — not the rehashed PR that so often passes for journalism these days.
We’ve also provided a roadmap and many of the resources journalists need to tell the important stories in health care. We offer tools to help readers sort through the tsunami of not-ready-for-primetime health news that threatens to swamp them every day.
My hope is that more readers, inspired and educated by our example, will demand a higher level of quality from their news sources.
We might then see more journalists competing to attain peaks of excellence — instead of digging to new lows in shovelware.