Whelan: Will HuffPo ruin AOL’s health site?

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Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

In the wake of AOL’s acquisition of the Huffington Post, Forbes.com’s David Whelan has taken the time to ask the $315 million health journalism question: What will happen to AOL’s decent health offerings when what he calls HuffPo’s trademark “medical freak show” leap on board?

As fellow Rahul Parikh fans will no doubt be aware, Ariana Huffington’s Post has long been a haven for those who share her non-evidence-based medical beliefs, but to recap, here’s Whelan’s biting comparison of the two sites:

AOL Health is a helpful site with tools for losing weight, Q&A sessions with Harvard Med professors, and a Mayo Clinic-esque databank of ailments and symptoms. It has its share of sensational headlines, overplaying stories on sex and diets. But that’s only a misdemeanor in the world of health journalism.

What’s always been closer to a journalistic felony is the way that the Huffington Post’s health coverage promotes pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and dubious remedies. Rahul Parikh, a pediatrician in the Bay Area who writes for Salon, has done some the best work I’ve seen exposing the looniness. Some examples from his survey: one blogger thinks swine flu should be treated with enemas, another promotes “distance healing”, and comedian Jim Carrey spreads the harmful theory that vaccines cause autism.

Since posting, Whelan received a pointed reply from HuffPo’s senior health editor, who says the site’s days on the fringe are now in the rear-view mirror:

UPDATE: The Huffington Post’s Senior Health Editor, Alana B. Elias Kornfeld, called to say that health articles are vetted by a Medical Review Board: “This has been true since HuffPost Health launched in Fall 2010 as a vertical separate from HuffPost Living where wellness coverage appeared in the past. As such, the acupuncturist referenced in Mr. Parikh’s 2009 Salon article is not the Health editor. Myself and Associate Health Editor, Meghan Neal, are both trained journalists.”

Matthew Herper, also of Forbes, follows up by pointing out that nothing seems to have changed. Today the Post has published a piece written by David Kirby that asserts people believe in a link between autism and vaccines for a reason and thus the debate won’t go away. Part of Kirby’s argument:

I know that many people will say the vaccine issue has been thoroughly investigated and debunked. I honestly wish that were the case, but it simply is not true. All of the “vaccine-autism” studies you hear about investigated just one childhood vaccine out of 14 (MMR), or one vaccine ingredient out of dozens (thimerosal). That is like announcing that air pollution does not cause lung cancer because you looked at carbon monoxide, alone, and hydrogen sulfide, alone, and found no link.

All of the pieces mentioned here are rich with links to other interesting reading about the subject so we encourage readers to explore the subject.

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