Center for Medical Consumers

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New Web Site Critiques Medical Reporting

Posted by medconsumers on May 1, 2006

So much of what passes for medical reporting amounts to cheerleading for a new drug, procedure, or screening test. To make some long overdue improvements, a new Web site (www.HealthNewsReview.org) has been launched by the University of Minnesota School of Journalism & Mass Communication and the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making. The Web site is designed to sharpen the critical appraisal skills of reporters as well as the general public.

A staff of 20 people with expertise in medical research and journalism monitor the medical news stories from Monday through Friday in 50 of the country’s major newspapers, broadcast media, weekly news magazines, and wire services. The stories must be about the prevention and treatment of disease and make claims about the treatments, procedures, or tests. The experts score several news stories each week, using a star system.

The Web site explains each item important to the rating system. Stories are judged, for example, by the quality of the supporting evidence and whether the harms and benefits of a treatment or test were appropriately quantified. To illustrate this point crucial to accurate reporting, the Web site explains: “Let’s say the risk for blindness in a patient with diabetes over a 5-year period is 2 in 100 (2%) in a group of patients treated conventionally and 1 in 100 (1%) in patients treated with a new drug.” A modest finding like this is often conveyed in the media as: DRUG CUTS RISK OF BLINDNESS BY 50%, which is true but only half the story. The Web site encourages reporters to convey finding in terms of absolute difference, which in this theoretical example would be: the new drug reduces the 5-year risk of blindness by 1%.

In another example, news stories are assessed for disease-mongering, a term coined by the late medical journalist Lynn Payer to describe the hyping of disease prevalence to instill fear in the public as a way of selling drugs and screening tests. Many of the disease prevalence surveys are conducted by drug companies or single-disease organizations funded by drug companies.

This Web site will help consumers learn how to judge the quality of news stories as well as the information imparted by their doctors.

Maryann Napoli, Center for Medical Consumers ©
May 2006

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