Please note that I have corrected Gary Schwitzer’s bio from the original post (corrected on 8 Sept)
Gary Schwitzer was a health journalist for many years, working in radio and TV (including CNN), before becoming an academic at the University of Minnesota, where he was associate professor and taught health journalism and media ethics until recently.
He is now probably best known as the publisher of Health News Review, a website that critically evaluates media stories about health and medical research and clinical issues. Its stated aim is “holding health and medical journalism accountable”.
The website is in fact modelled on a similar site in Australia called Media Doctor, but Schwitzer’s has had a bigger impact, not least because he vigorously engages in dissemination of its findings, via his blog and Twitter.
Schwitzer was kind enough to spare time out of his busy schedule to prepare a virtual presentation for those attending the public health panel at the New News conference in Melbourne last week.
He gave a damning critique of the media’s standard approach to covering health and medicine, arguing that we tend to be cheerleaders rather than providing critical analysis which might contribute to a more informed community (and perhaps also better policy).
He said that we do too many unquestioning, awe-struck stories about “breakthroughs” and fluffy, feel-good pieces, rather than questioning the claims, investigating the evidence, and looking at the conflicts of interests of our sources.
As a result, we tend to whip the “worried well” into a frenzy, raise unrealistic expectations of the health care system, and promote undue demand for costly, unproven technologies that may do more harm than good. We are often also unquestioning advocates of screening, without making sure our audiences understand that screening can do harm as well as good.
After four years, Schwitzer’s Health News Review has evaluated more than 1,000 stories and found:
• 71% fail to adequately discuss costs.
• 71% fail to explain how big (or small) is the potential benefit.
• 66% fail to explain how big (or small) is the potential harm.
Schwitzer says most stories give a “kid in candy store view” of health care – ie that everything is terrific, nothing is risky, and there are no price tags.
He argues that even in 300 words journalists in any medium can explain that…
• More is not always better
• Newer is not always better
• Screening doesn’t always make sense.
Schwitzer’s critique rings very true for me. I cringe a hundred shades of purple when I think back on many of the stories that I’ve done over the years. No doubt I’ve made every error, including errors of omission, that he identifies.
When I started covering the health round for AAP in the 1980s, these sort of analyses – and educational tools – were not available. Not to me at least. It took me years to realise some of the mistakes that I was making.
These days, thanks to people like Schwitzer, and thanks to the Internet’s tremendous capacity for dissemination, news managers and journalists covering health have no excuse for not knowing better.
Schwitzer’s presentation deserves to be shown in every news room and every journalism school in this country. ***
You can download his powerpoint presentation here. I recommend scrolling through it while watching the clip below.
••• Schwitzer could be enticed to visit Australia for a lecture tour if one or more organisations could be found to help fund his visit. I am keen to organise this, so please get in touch if you or yours are interested. Health organisations, media organisations, journalism schools, health sciences/medical/public health/nursing schools, and those concerned with public policy more broadly are on my radar….