Date Published: September 14, 2010
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Amanda Wilson, Jane Robertson, Patrick McElduff, Alison Jones, David Henry
Abstract: David Henry and colleagues review Australian news stories over a five-year period to assess whether quality is associated with who wrote the story: a specialist health journalist or a non-specialist.
Partial Text: The news media have a crucial role in supporting health literacy, and multiple surveys have shown the extent to which the public relies on them for information about medical advances ,. However, the mainstream media are undergoing rapid and unprecedented change, with a shift from the traditional outlets (broadsheet newspapers and flagship current affairs programs) to online news services and blogs that are available free of charge. These online sources, and the more recent Web 2.0 activities (e.g., FaceBook and Twitter), still rely on the quality of the news coverage by the traditional media, which they frequently cite as information sources .
In recent years, sites that monitor the completeness and accuracy of medical news reporting have been established in Australia (http://www.mediadoctor.org.au), Canada (http://www.mediadoctor.ca), Hong Kong (http://www.mediadoctor.hk), and the US (http://www.healthnewsreview.org). To address the question posed in this Policy Forum, we accessed and analysed data from the Media Doctor Australia site. This site posts reviews of health news stories published in the Australian commercial and publicly funded media, including newspapers, online news, television, and radio broadcast transcripts ,,. The focus is on stories that make therapeutic claims about new treatments and procedures, including diagnostic tests. News stories are not limited to local content, and include “wire” stories from major news organizations and stories from overseas media outlets that are carried by Australian media. The stories are identified from regular searches of a wide range of online news Web sites, along with media releases, journal articles, and other material relevant to the stories. Two raters independently score each news story according to ten criteria (See Box 1 for a description of rating criteria and Media Doctor Australia methods).
There has been little empirical research on the relationship between the authorship of articles and the content and quality of the stories. Anecdotally, specialist health journalists can provide lucid and succinct summaries of complex research, which can inform both the public and the researcher community. In operating the media monitoring sites, we have avoided naming specific journalists, preferring to concentrate on reporting the performance of the media outlets. We examined the provenance of 1,337 medical news stories published by the Australian mainstream media between 2004 and 2009, and subsequently rated by Media Doctor Australia. Although journalists are not named on the Web site, author information is recorded in a password-protected area of the Media Doctor database. Based on the “bylines” (who wrote the story) we placed the authors into six categories (Box 2).
The key issue was whether the more experienced specialist health journalists wrote stories of higher quality than journalists in the other categories. In making this judgement we were aware that the media outlet where the journalist worked was a potential confounder; even the best health journalist can have a story ruined by inappropriate editing or production. The 1,337 stories were published by 12 Australian media outlets between February 2004 and March 2009 (Table 1). Three hundred twenty stories had no byline. Of the remainder, 193 were written by 143 nonspecialist journalists; 415 came from four news organizations (Australian Associated Press [AAP], Associated Press [AP], Agence France Presse [AFP], and Reuters) and 39 came from 12 foreign media outlets (including ABC, BBC, Boston Globe, Guardian, The New York Times, The Telegraph UK, The Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post); 142 stories were written by 65 health/science journalists, and 228 stories were written by eight specialist health journalists, all based in Australia.
It does matter who writes news stories that cover the benefits and harms of health care interventions. Stories written by specialist health journalists were superior to those written by other groups. These data illustrate what can be achieved in terms of high-quality health news reporting, but this ideal is seldom reached. The analyses also underscore the importance of which outlets journalists work for. Traditional broadsheet newspapers scored highest and commercial human interest programs consistently returned the poorest scores. We presume that these differences reflect not only the professional skills of journalists, but also editorial policies, which dictate the target audience, the writing style (favouring human interest over evidence), the length of the article, and the extent to which it serves particular sectoral interests (e.g., a patient support group or identifiable victims of a disease). These findings are not surprising, but some of the differences were large and likely to translate into flawed information for consumers, with an adverse effect on health literacy.
Obvious suggestions to improve health reporting include better training of all journalists about evidence-based medicine during their undergraduate education. Major outlets could invest in more specialist health journalists and rely on fewer imported health stories. However, each of these suggestions comes at a cost, which may be substantial and unsustainable for the foreseeable future.