Reporters don't usually get graded on the stories they produce, but they do on Gary Schwitzer's Website HealthNewsReview.org. And overall, he said they're failing.
For the past two years, the University of Minnesota journalism professor and his team of reviewers have been rating the quality of health intervention stories based on 10 criteria.
“Too often medical reporters haven't been trained in the basics of understanding medical research and evidence-based medicine.”Gavin Yamey, senior editor at PLoS Medicine
They check whether reporters have put their stories together primarily using news releases or single sources. They also deduct points from stories that don't mention a researcher's known conflict of interest.
Schwitzer said cost is one of the most common omissions in reports on medical treatments. He said a majority of the stories his team reviewed failed to adequately discuss the price a consumer might have to pay for a new drug, device or test.
"Which is really unfathomable to me at a time when the U.S. is devoting 16 percent of the gross domestic product to health care spending and three-quarters of the news stories that we found don't adequately discuss cost," said Schwitzer.
Safety concerns were also frequently overlooked. Schwitzer said about 65 percent of the medical stories didn't mention whether there was any possibility of harm associated with a particular treatment. Likewise, if the benefits of a procedure or product were small, he said most stories didn't note that either.
"The stories that we reviewed for the most part paint a sort of kid in the candy store picture of the U.S. health care system," said Schwitzer, "whereby everything looks terrific, everything looks risk-free and nothing has a price tag associated with it. And nothing could be further from the truth."
Schwitzer said the impact of poor medical reporting is that consumers get bad information that could harm them. Cancer screening studies are one area in particular where he said media coverage has been especially weak and one-sided.
In the case of prostate cancer screening, media stories have been enthusiastically in favor of the PSA test, even though scientific studies still haven't established a clear benefit to taking it, notes Dr. Barnett Kramerm editor of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute and a director at the National Institutes of Health.
He says it's true that the PSA test is more sensitive and can detect more cancerous cells, but he says that doesn't mean those cells will go on to cause disease.
In fact, Kramer said there's a real possibility that the test actually causes harm by leading to unnecessary treatments.
"Interventions always carry some risk and some harm. And certainly surgery for prostate cancer carries harm - a low but finite risk of dying of the surgery, sexual impotence and urinary incontinence. The two later complications of surgery and treatment are actually rather common," said Kramer.
There are some controlled, randomized trials underway that could one day answer the risk and benefit questions about PSA screening tests. But those results are a few years away.
In the meantime, Kramer says the media should be more cautious in their reporting on the tests or on any medical advance that has minimal evidence to support it. He thinks it would also help if journalists had more scientific training.
Gavin Yamey agrees. He's Senior Editor at PLoS Medicine, the journal that published Gary Schwitzer's media analysis.
"Too often medical reporters haven't been trained in the basics of understanding medical research and evidence-based medicine," said Yamey. "A lot of the time that's because today's medical reporter was on the crime beat last week and on the weather the week before. So that's part of the problem."
But Yamey says health intervention journalism isn't doomed to mediocrity. He believes reporters want to do right by their stories. And he thinks publicizing examples of good and bad health journalism will inspire them to do better.
Gary Schwitzer's medical news Web site isn't the only independent review of health journalism. Yamey says there are similar Web sites operating in Australia and the U.K.