Tag Archives: schwitzer

Journalist compares U.K. science writers, American health reporters

When the Association of British Science Writers announced the nominees for their 2011 Science Writers’ Awards, Guardian science blogger Martin Robbins noted a familiar pattern.

Of the 12 places on the shortlists for science writing, 6 went to New Scientist, 1 each to Nature and the BMJ, and 1 each to the Guardian and the Independent The final two places went to a freelancer and the website SciDev.Net. That means that newspapers combined took just two spots, while specialist science publications took eight. Meanwhile, the TV shortlist was occupied by BBC 3, BBC 4, and BBC 2, while the radio shortlist featured BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 4 again, and, yes, BBC Radio 4.

A lists of nominees from earlier in the decade reveals a similar pattern of “Near-dominance of broadcast science by the BBC, while specialist publications competing with a dwindling group of broadsheet newspapers for the literary prizes,” Robbins writes. To better understand this apparent one-sidedness, Robbins talked to ABSW chair Connie St. Louis, who suggested that U.K. newspapers have succumbed to a form of churnalism and “communication,” because they simply don’t have the resources for in-depth work like that which occurs at the BBC or the specialty outlets. Here’s St. Louis:

I have this thesis which is… science journalists have forgotten how to be journalists. They’re actually science communicators, and they go into the job and… the job was to tell you what science was doing and help you understand science, and I think that’s an incredibly important function, but don’t call yourself a science journalist if that’s what you’re doing, call yourself a science blogger, call yourself a science communicator, but if you’re going to call yourself a journalist then behave like a journalist, dig for stories, ask questions of science, ask questions of scientists, look at numbers, look at figures, and do what journalism does.

St. Louis then goes on to compare U.K. science journalism (somewhat unfavorably) to the relatively higher level of scrutiny faced by American health journalists, scrutiny brought about thanks in part to a few key thought leaders.

We’re always explaining new cures, explaining new science, but where are the guys who are really digging down, where are our Ivan Oranskys, where are our Gary Schweitzers [sic], we don’t have them. It’s all very much “here’s a new cancer drug”, and I’m not knocking that, it’s really important, but actually we’re in a very deficit model of journalism at the moment.


Pushback against Medtronic’s Infuse hits boiling point

Medtronic’s ongoing woes with its blockbuster spine fusion product Infuse have been a staple of Covering Health for as long as we can remember, but things have reached a crescendo this week.

Photo by attila acs via Flickr

The first blow came with the publication of John Fauber’s in-depth report (read it at the Journal Sentinel or in MedPage Today) on the conflicts of interest and regulatory weak points that kept Infuse going strong despite serious questions about medical outcomes.

The next day, The Spine Journal made the unprecedented move of dedicating an entire issue to repudiating the failures of science and medical journal publication that made Infuse what it is today. For the record, both those links point straight to journal press releases. If you’re looking for more context, you’ll find it in Fauber’s followup to The Spine Journal‘s Infuse issue. HealthNewsReview editor and publisher Gary Schwitzer also blogged his take on the releases.

Fauber’s Medtronic coverage is a joint project between the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and MedPage Today.

FCC report on journalism reveals failures, unique potential of the health beat

An FCC working group led by Steven Waldman (formerly of U.S. News & World Report and Beliefnet.com, among other things) has unleashed its behemoth report on American journalism, titled “The Information Needs of Communities: The changing media landscape in a broadband age.”

The full report runs 365 pages (475 if you count footnotes) and addresses the current failures and future path of journalism in these United States. If you don’t have a few hundred hours to spare, you can get the highlights from the executive summary.

While the authors do refer to health journalism throughout the work, they specifically address the beat on pages 49 and 50, where they quote from the 2009 Kaiser Family Foundation report “The State of Health Journalism in the U.S., ” (PDF) which was partially based on a survey of AHCJ members.

The report dwells on the health care stories that go unreported due to lack of resources, though it does cite one bright spot, namely Kaiser Health News and all the local health-focused nonprofit outlets that have sprung up in recent years.

As regular readers might expect and Gary Schwitzer, author of the 2009 report, addresses in depth on his blog, local television health news was singled out for special criticism, both for its lack of focus on truly local stories and the increasing reliance on pay-for-play or similarly fishy arrangements with local medical outlets, like when “a hospital in Ohio paid local TV stations $100,000 or more to air ‘medical breakthrough’ segments that benefited the hospital.”

Pay-for-play arrangements with the health care industry have prompted an outcry from journalists in the field. The Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society for Professional Journalists issued a joint statement urging local broadcast stations to avoid arrangements that improperly influence health coverage. The statement said that even if such deals are disclosed, handing over editorial decision making to hospitals violates the principles of ethical journalism and betrays the public trust.

At the same time, health news remains important to advertisers. As the report’s authors write, “Certain topics are so attractive to advertisers that websites that focus on them can fetch even higher rates. This is especially true for health and financial content, which is why a disproportionate number of the successful content websites have been in those sectors (e.g., WebMD, Everyday Health, CBS MarketWatch, the Motley Fool).”

Other random health-related tidbits:

  • A shout-out to Florida’s Healthy State Collaborative Local Journalism Center, which “recently launched a website to promote its mission of “super serv[ing] the residents of [the] region with an intense journalistic commitment to the unifying topic of health care.”
  • A survey found that, when it comes to use of shared library computers, health information (37 percent) trailed only education (42 percent) and employment (40 percent). It’s an odd factoid, but health information consumption patterns always intrigue me.
  • Speaking of which, “In a Pew Internet Project survey of residents of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Macon, Georgia; and San Jose, California, 62 percent said that they were very confident that they could find local information about medical and health problems. But only 24 percent said they were very confident that they could find information to ‘assess [whether] local politicians were doing their jobs.'”

The report also offers a more general take on the possible future of journalism in this country, one which doesn’t leave much room for the public sector. According to CJR’s Joel Meares, when it comes to correcting the issues facing the industry, “the theme seems to be to hold a steady course, loosen up the system, put a lot of information online, and hope foundations are willing to do some hard work.” Alongside that assessment, Meares also offers a functional summary of the concrete ideas contained in the report. He also offers a reaction roundup, as well as a quick sidebar on public broadcasting.

Over at ReportingOnHealth.org, Barbara Feder Ostrov gives a personal testament to the trend of laying off health reporters and not replacing them. As she says, “the health beat is simply added to the daily responsibilities of other reporters who may be covering education, science, the environment or local government.”

Sponsored segments, hospital partnerships creep into news outlets

In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Blythe Bernhard takes a look at the fruits of the slow, steady advances hospitals and health providers have made into local television and print news. In recent years, sponsored segments and partnered content have insinuated themselves into broadcasts, columns and news-esque advertising spaces.

According to Stacey Woelfel, news director at KOMU-Columbia, Mo., partnership offers are more likely to come from medical institutions than from other sectors. There’s no denying that cash-strapped media outlets have welcomed the extra revenue, and the numbers show that providers have come out ahead as well.


Photo by purple_onion via Flickr

Hospitals that promote their services during news broadcasts say the exposure is more effective than pure advertising. The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota launched its own news department a decade ago to distribute its “Medical Edge” stories to media outlets nationwide. A Mayo survey showed patients’ stated preference for the hospital increased about 60 percent within three years of the news service’s launch. Hospital executives said the business value of “Medical Edge” was more than 10 times the cost of producing it, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

But media critics, including AHCJ member Gary Schwitzer, say that providing all that valuable exposure may involve ethical compromises on the part of news organizations. After all, they’re ceding some control over the content they air.

“It looks prestigious, it looks clean, it looks expert, but this is information that is coming from and being bought by one medical center source,” said Gary Schwitzer, publisher of Health News Review. “Who has vetted that to say that is the best information, and when are we going to hear from other players in town?”

And, by forming these partnerships, news organizations are allowing hospitals to become the gatekeepers for medical news, and thus indirectly allowing financial concerns to dictate what is considered newsworthy. To illustrate the quandry, Bernhard mentions a 10-month cancer prevention series that was created through a partnership between a St. Louis local hospital and a TV news station. It includes weekly news segments, regular two-minute paid ads during commercial breaks and even monthly phone banks and online chats. Cancer prevention is certainly news, but AHCJ’s president told Bernhard there may be other reasons why it’s driving this particular news and advertising blitz.

Cancer is big business for hospitals competing in a “medical arms race” to attract patients with insurance to fund hospital investments in MRI scanners and robotic surgical instruments, said Charles Ornstein, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and senior reporter at ProPublica, a non-profit investigative newsroom based in New York.
“There’s a reason they chose cancer instead of diabetes care for the uninsured population,” he said.
Even a medical topic as seemingly straightforward as cancer prevention generates differing viewpoints and requires health reporters to reach out to multiple sources, Ornstein said.

For disclosures of the Post-Dispatch‘s own partnerships, see the final subheading, “Popular topic.”


Being precise about screening vs. diagnostic tests

Gary Schwitzer, AHCJ member and HealthNewsReview.org publisher, calls for more precise language when describing medical tests and to make a bit of an example of Prevention magazine on his blog. The March issue of the magazine leads with a story titled “4 Screening Tests Women Fear.” The problem? The story’s about mammograms, colonoscopies, endoscopies and MRIs. And two of those things, Schwitzer writes, are not like the others. Emphasis mine.

…Only 2 of the 4 tests discussed are screening tests.

Yes, mammograms and colonoscopies are screening tests – used in an apparently healthy population looking for signs of trouble.

Endoscopies and MRI scans — as discussed by Prevention in this case — are not screening tests but diagnostic tests used to help diagnose what is the problem in people with signs or symptoms of something wrong. Screening tests are for people believed to be healthy. Diagnostic tests are for people believed to have a problem.

Schwitzer’s not just splitting hairs here. As he explains, getting these distinctions right can have real-world health impact.

The semantics are important. Lumping diagnostic tests like endoscopy and MRI in with screening tests like mammograms and colonoscopies can give readers the impression that everyone should consider all of them. And, no, not everyone needs to be worried about when to have their next endoscopy or MRI scan…