In what would likely be a misreported story - if it were ever reported, of course - an analysis conducted by Gary Schwitzer from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication found that most reporting on medical treatments/interventions fails to adequately address issues such as the quality of the evidence, the cost of the treatment, potential benefits or harm, and more. Quelle suprise!
Published May 27 at PLoS Medicine, Schwitzer's analysis looked at 500 health news stories that were reported over a two-year span, finding that between 62% and 77% of the stories had "major failings in the quality of the reporting." The analysis was conducted on stories graded by Schwitzer's online project, HealthNewsReview.org, which evaluates health stories reported by various media outlets (including the top 50 newspapers, the Associated Press's wire reports, TIME, Newsweek, and three of the four major networks' morning and evening news) and gives the journalists their "grades."
The methodology in the analysis seems pretty solid. The only slight conflict of interest might be that Schwitzer's own website was the source of the data, but this analysis is of grades already given and doesn't stand to really benefit that project in any substantial way. Reading over the study, it really confirms a lot of what I already figured to be true, mainly that key information is routinely omitted from medical reporting. Time constraints and sensationalism are two possible - and in my opinion likely - causes for the poor reporting, but PLoS Medicine editors also discuss the idea that reporters' inadequate training in understanding health research and the "complicit collaboration" between scientists, reporters, and medical journals in hyping a new study could also both be to blame.
Some of the blame certainly also falls on scienctists and medical professionals for not sharing the information with the media in an appropriate manner. A study by Vikki Entwhistle found that "the way information flows from medical journals to newspapers influences the balance of medical topics reported, the quality of the research reported (and its appropriateness for public attention), and the quality of news reporting." Still, is it not a journalist's job to dig and find all of the facts before just throwing something up on screen or out onto the printed page? Regardless of the reason, it's simply unacceptable for our trusted media outlets to not give the public all of the important information that puts a story's headline in the proper context.
Not all medical reporting is shoddy. Schwitzer's site does prominently display five-star stories, stories that get the content correct and have all of the necessary information, right on its front page, along with several of the latest stories making the rounds. This is a great resource, and any time a medical news story piques my interest, I'll be sure to swing by and see what I've missed out on in the reporting.
(For what it's worth, only three articles from the Courier Journal appear on the site, all from 2006. One received a five star rating, the other two receiving two and three stars.)