News stories about new treatments, tests, products, and procedures appear daily. Such reporting should ideally be accurate, balanced, and complete so that health care consumers are properly informed and ready to participate in decision making about their health care. If reporting is inaccurate, imbalanced, or incomplete, consumers may have unrealistic expectations and demand of their physicians care that would be of little value or even harmful.
Is the news media doing a good job of reporting on new treatments, tests, products, and procedures? Ray Moynihan and colleagues analyzed how often news stories quantified the costs, benefits, and harms of the interventions being discussed, and how often they reported potential conflicts of interest in story sources . Of the 207 newspaper and television stories that they studied, 83 did not report the benefits of medications quantitatively, and of the 124 stories that did quantify the benefits of medications, only 18 presented both relative and absolute benefits. Of all the stories, 53% had no information about potential harms of the treatment, and 70% made no mention of treatment costs. Of 170 stories that cited an expert or a scientific study, 85 (50%) cited at least one with a financial tie to the manufacturer of the drug, a tie that was disclosed in only 33 of the 85 stories.
Moynihan and colleagues' work was one of the inspirations for the creation of the Australian Media Doctor Web site (http://www.mediadoctor.org.au/) in 2004. That project monitors the health news coverage of 13 Australian news organizations. The project concluded, after its first six months experience, that “Australian lay news reporting of medical advances…is poor” .
- The daily delivery of news stories about new treatments, tests, products, and procedures may have a profound—and perhaps harmful—impact on health care consumers.
- A US Web site project, HealthNewsReview.org (http://HealthNewsReview.org/), modeled after similar efforts in Australia and Canada, evaluates and grades health news coverage, notifying journalists of their grades.
- After almost two years and 500 stories, the project has found that journalists usually fail to discuss costs, the quality of the evidence, the existence of alternative options, and the absolute magnitude of potential benefits and harms.
- Reporters and writers have been receptive to the feedback; editors and managers must be reached if change is to occur.
- Time (to research stories), space (in publications and broadcasts), and training of journalists can provide solutions to many of the journalistic shortcomings identified by the project.
In Canada, Alan Cassels and colleagues documented similar journalistic shortcomings . Cassels heads a team that launched a Canadian Media Doctor Web site (http://www.mediadoctor.ca/) in 2005. That project evaluates health news coverage by 12 Canadian news organizations.
These efforts helped inspire a project to evaluate United States health news coverage of claims made about treatments, tests, products, and procedures. HealthNewsReview.org started publishing evaluations of health news stories in April 2006. The sole support for the project is a grant from the 501c3 nonprofit Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making (http://www.fimdm.org/about.php), founded in 1989 by Dartmouth's Dr. Jack Wennberg and colleagues, with a mission of “assuring that people understand their choices and have the information they need to make sound decisions affecting their health and well being.”
This article reports on the project's findings after its first 22 months and after evaluation of 500 health news stories.