If we can’t always trust health news (especially TV health news), at least it’s nice to know that media watchdogs are out there to monitor and hold the press accountable for poor or dangerous health reporting.
Unfortunately, it’s not an easy task, and now one of the watchers has quit the game. HealthNewsReview.org stopped reviewing and rating television health news in September, explaining that after years of critiques, health coverage on networks like ABC, NBC, and CBS has failed to improve. National Public Radio’s Bob Garfield, on his show On The Media, interviewed Gary Schwitzer, the publisher of HealthNewsReview on November 13. They talked about the current state of health reporting, and Schwitzer’s website’s retreat from the TV watchdog game:
Network morning chat shows are seldom regarded as a matter of life and death but, man, do they love the subject. They are perpetually digging into the latest health and medical breakthroughs, from heart disease to spinal paralysis to cancer to the old reliable, weight loss miracle. Their stories overflow with optimism and excitement, offering hope for the millions of viewers who are hooked on these morning shows, often their only sources of information.
What they don’t overflow with is accuracy, context and journalistic responsibility, or so concludes University of Minnesota’s Gary Schwitzer, publisher of HealthNewsReview.org. In September, Schwitzer announced that his team will no longer be reviewing every single medical item on TV. The reason? Despite HealthNewsReview’s years of reporting on the reporting and publishing the results, TV health pieces consistently failed to adhere to basic standards.
Schwitzer explains to Garfield that “We, every day, apply 10 set criteria to the review of every story, and how you do on those 10 criteria is translated into a star score, like a movie review rating, of zero to five stars. And after three-and-a-half years and 220-some stories, television news had an average star score of only two stars out of five.” (The 10 criteria include how the story addresses the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure, whether/how costs are mentioned in the story, and how harms of the treatment/test/product/procedure are covered, among others.)
1. Unquestioningly promote new drugs and new technologies
2. Feed the “worried well” by raising unrealistic expectations of unproven technologies that may produce more harm than good
3. Fail to ask tough questions
4. Make any discussion of health care reform that much more difficult
In the September bulletin announcing that HealthNewsReview wouldn’t be following TV health news anymore, Schwitzer breaks down the grades by network.
ABC’s Good Morning America earns an average grade of 1.8 (out of 5) stars over 49 stories. World News Tonight earns an average of 2.2. On CBS, the Early Show ekes out another 1.8, this time over 36 stories, while the Evening News earns 2.4 stars. NBC’s TODAY show and Nightly News earn 2.1 and 2.7 respectively. Overall, the three networks as a whole get a measly 2.1.
“Reviews of these networks’ stories made up 27% of the first 855 reviews we conducted. (So it’s not like we didn’t give them a chance to improve!)” Schwitzer writes in the announcement.
Stories on ABC, CBS, and NBC accounted for 68% of the site’s zero-star scoring stories. “Conversely, the networks’ meager two five-star stories make up less than 2% of the total of 108 five-star scores recorded by all news organizations combined in 3.5 years,” Schwitzer writes. “Get the picture? This stuff is really bad.”
In the On The Media segment, Garfield and Schwitzer discuss a few examples of what he’s talking about. In one–which Schwitzer calls a “zero-stars” story–NBC Today’s Meredith Viera touts something called the ‘sleep diet.’ “There is no part of this that has anything to do with science, Schwitzer says.”
He also calls out a CBS Early Show segment on how blue food dye could help prevent paralysis, saying “this turns out to be a vast extrapolation of a study done on rats. And apart from everything else, I guess this could cause a run on Gatorade and M&Ms for people wishing to take the sweet, delicious path to non-paraplegia.”
Garfield asks Schwitzer what this means for the audience of these stories. “I’m talking about actual harm to actual people,” he says. “Do you have any evidence that people are actually acting on this dreck and, and making life decisions on the basis of their TV morning news, and if so, how serious a problem is that?”
Schwitzer argues that breathless medical reporting sets up unrealistic expectations that fuel the worried well, and give false hope to the actually ill, “jerking sick people and their loved ones around.”
Just picture, if you’ve known someone in your life with a spinal cord injury and it appears hopeless, and you hear on a network that you presumably have respect for about something that reduces injuries, you’re going to gravitate towards that and you may miss the fact that this was in rats. That, to me, is a harm.
As unethical as it is to repeatedly publish misleading or harmful health stories, Schwitzer writes in his September announcementt that the bigger problem for HealthNewsReview was the fact that their review and critique of these stories affected no change. “After 3.5 years and 228 network TV health segments reviewed, we can make the data-driven statement that many of the stories are bad and they’re not getting much better,” he writes.
One network TV health news producer has told me not even to bother to e-mail him about our reviews because he’s not going to share them with the staff anyway. He thinks it’s unfair that we apply the same 10 criteria to broadcast stories as we do to print stories. But neither he nor anyone else has ever pointed out even one of our ten criteria that is NOT important in every health care story.
If our critiques aren’t helping TV health news, it’s time to devote more attention to other news organizations where, perhaps, our constructive outreach efforts may do more good.
It is worrying to think that health reporting on network news is so bad, and so resistant to improvement that its critics don’t even want to bother with it anymore. Schwitzer’s note says that HealthNewsReview will “still be watching, hoping for change…