Food for Thought: Improving Media Coverage on Healthcare

Whether it’s about vaccines, new drugs or side effects of existing medications –  media coverage of medical topics very often is poor and biased. Written from an industry or pharma critics perspective, it exaggerates either risks or benefits. In addition, writers often do not seem to be familiar with the various tedious tasks, steps and regulatory requirements of drug development.

Enter Media Doctor, an initiative by Australian academics and clinicians from the Newcastle Institute of Public Health, who are interested in promoting better and more accurate media coverage in the area of medical treatments. They founded Media Doctor Australia, a website reviewing and rating news items on medical treatments using a standardized rating scale. The website also presents examples of reports regarded as good or bad.

Media Doctor applies ten different rating criteria in six categories, respectively: Pharmaceutical, Adverse Effects, Diagnostic Tests, Surgical Procedure, Complementary and Alternative Medicines, and Other. As an example, an article is regarded unsatisfactory if it does not mention sources and possible conflict of interest or does not attempt at independent corroboration. A satisfactory story for example needs to discuss the strength of evidence in detail.

Meanwhile, the idea has spread to Canada, Hong Kong, and the U.S. (under the name of Healthnewsreview). The U.S. website in particular is very outspoken, and does not hesitate to label poor stories as “shovelware straight from a news release” or an “unbalanced story” providing only “two rosy anecdotes” as evidence.

Useful statistics provide the reader with insights on which media and journalists provide the most reliable stories. That’s exactly the lever for improvement, and – for journalists – also a possibility to demonstrate competence and quality.

akampion now has learned that a German version of Healthnewsreview is in preparation at the University of Dortmund’s Chair of Science Journalism. We will keep you updated on how and when the site will be up and running!