NEJM article critical of health reporting

In commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine, Susan Dentzer, the editor-in-chief of Health Affairs and an on-air analyst on health policy for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, takes journalists to task for not properly or fully reporting important health issues.

She starts out by praising some “seasoned reporters who perform thoughtfully even in the face of breaking news and tight deadlines.” But then admonishes the rest: “But all too frequently, what is conveyed about health by many other journalists is wrong or misleading.”

The problem, as she sees it, is that “some distortion is attributable to ignorance or an inability to interpret and convey the nuanced results of clinical studies. And some is due to uncertainty about journalists’ proper role: Is our job to describe the bigger picture, or simply to report what is new?”

She cites a few examples, such as the flap over the risks and benefits of the Vytorin cholesterol pill after clinical trial results were belatedly released by Schering-Plough, which sells the drug. “Some journalists asserted that (the trial) showed the drug had no benefits in preventing heart attacks and strokes – something it certainly did not show, since heart attacks and strokes were not end points in the trial. We will never know the cost of this misinformation in terms of panicked patients or physicians who, perhaps unnecessarily, discontinued use of the drug.”

In response, Trudy Lieberman, president of AHCJ’s board of directors, points out that journalists, particularly those on extremely tight deadlines, are often facing an uphill battle in understanding conveying complicated health issues. “Reporters often told me that they would like to write about gray areas and nuances, but their editors won’t let them because the editors are looking for something jazzy,” she tells Scientific American. “If the nuances are there, they’re jumped to the second page if they’re there at all.”

Dentzer makes some valid points, which are likely to come into greater relief as newspapers cut back on staffing and space for stories.

One thought on “NEJM article critical of health reporting

  1. Avatar photoAndrew Holtz

    Everything Susan says is true. Also, everything she says has been said many times before, including by the journalists who gathered to create AHCJ more than a decade ago.

    And the key point is that those journalists didn’t just bemoan the shortcomings of our profession, they acted effectively in response. As soon as I heard what these audacious journos were up to, I knew it was something I wanted to join… in order to be able to more than just complain about how things should be better.

    Over the years, AHCJ has made astonishing progress. It can be measured in the ever-growing membership numbers (despite the harsh economic realities). It can be measured in the impressive stack of workshops and conference programs, books, web resources and more. It can be measured in the quality and quantity of AHCJ staff, who earn their keep by helping us do our jobs better.

    But the most valuable achievement is the creation of our community of journalists… dedicated to higher standards… to doing it right.

    Many talk. We did… and will keep doing.

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