Digging Deep: The 411 Behind Medical News Headlines

By Barbara Ficarra, RN, BSN, MPA

Gary Schwitzer

Let’s face it, health and medical news reported by mainstream media can be misleading.

In attempts to capture the attention of the public with alluring headlines, the substance of a news story may be imbalanced and inaccurate.

Consumers ought to be skeptical when reading a health story or listening to a segment on their favorite morning show or nightly news program.

How do consumers know what questions to ask when it comes to a health story?  How do they know if it’s accurate or not?

Gary Schwitzer, publisher at HealthNewsReview.org and health care journalism expert, helps consumers (and journalists) understand the importance of accurate and balanced news stories.

In an email to Mr. Schwitzer I asked him to take part in a Q&A to help put things in perspective.  [Please note, I was going to summarize each link below, however the information provided on HealthNewsReview is very detailed and it would be helpful for consumers to read through each area and take notes so they’ll be prepared to question the next news story that comes their way.]

Q&A with Gary Schwitzer, Health Care Journalism Expert

Q:  (Barbara)

Health news can be misleading regardless if it’s being reported from a major media outlet or a personal health blog.  What are the “red flags” of a misleading health report that health consumers need to know?

A:  (Gary Schwitzer)

I always like to apply our ten criteria from HealthNewsReview.org.

  1. What’s the total cost?
  2. How often do benefits occur?
  3. How often do harms occur?
  4. How strong is the evidence?
  5. Is this condition exaggerated? (disease-mongering)
  6. Are there alternative options?
  7. Is this really a new approach?
  8. Is it available to me?
  9. Who’s promoting this?
  10. Do they have a conflict of interest?

If a story doesn’t address most of these, that’s a red flag. And of the first 1,000 stories we’ve reviewed in our project, about 70% fail to discuss costs and fail to explain how small might be the potential benefits and  how large might be the potential harms.  That’s a kid-in-the-candy-store portrayal of US health care and we’re not developing a  very smart health care consumer population in this manner.

Q:  (Barbara)

What are some misleading key words that health consumers need to know when reading, listening or watching health news?

A:  (Gary Schwiter)

Years ago I wrote a column, “The Seven Words You Shouldn’t Use in Medical News.”  They were:

  1. Cure
  2. Miracle
  3. Breakthrough
  4. Promising
  5. Dramatic
  6. Hope
  7. Victim

The list wasn’t developed in isolation. And I didn’t dream it up out of thin air. Each word was suggested by sick people I interviewed through the years. Each is a vague – sometimes meaningless – term when used in a health care context. Granted, they are exciting terms that might help sell papers or move a reporter’s story onto page one or into the first news block, but they can be dangerous terms that mislead vulnerable people.  The original article is still online here.

Let’s drop these misleading and dangerous words from our dialogue about health care… Ill-defined, unfocused words can blur our vision as we gaze into the future of health care. This is a plea for a more disciplined selection of words by health care communicators, and for careful reading, listening and viewing by health care consumers. It’s a step we might all take in our pursuit of improved health care.

Q:  (Barbara)

Headlines and sound bites can be crafted carefully to get the attention of the consumer.  When a health reports grabs the attention of the consumer, what questions should health consumers ask themselves to better understand if the report is accurate or not?

A:  (Gary Schwitzer)

Again, I refer you to our ten criteria above.  Or, for more detail on how we apply these ten criteria, your readers could get the nitty-gritty here.

Q:  (Barbara)

Your blogs brilliantly describe imprecise and misleading news stories, what are two of your favorite blogs that highlight media mishaps that can help health consumers be aware of the imprecise health reports?

A:  (Gary Schwitzer)

One I just did  last week, “Small town newspapers and the medical arms race.” (Do we tend to favor things we did most recently?  But, no, I really like this one because it addresses vital issues of public understanding of the medical arms race.):

Others focused on news coverage of the US Preventive Services Task Force’s breast cancer screening recommendations last November – collectively the lowest point of health journalism I recall in my 35-year career.  It’s called, “10 things that stand out from the mammography week to remember (forget?).”

Still others came at the time we decided to stop spending so much time reviewing network TV health news because they were lousy and not improving.

Network TV morning health news segments may be harmful to your health” is one example.


It doesn’t make sense for us to review TV health news anymore.”

Q:  (Barbara)

What are two outstanding health stories that emphasize accurate and balanced health reporting?

A:  (Gary Schwitzer)

The Associated Press started a six-part series just this week on over-treatment in US health care.  One focused on low back pain and spine surgery.   These are terribly important concepts for Americans to grasp.

As an example of the good job TV news can do if they take a balanced, evidence-based approach is a CBS story by Dr. Jon LaPook “Is Angioplasty Worth The Risk?: Though A Common Medical Procedure, Many Are Performed At Hospitals Unprepared If Something Goes Wrong.”

Q:  (Barbara)

What are some of your favorite news sites and health sites and why?

A:  (Gary Schwitzer)

I could – and probably should – list many more, but I’ll limit myself to these.

Q:  (Barbara)

Do you feel the media manipulates health news?

A:  (Gary Schwitzer)

Let me answer that a different way.  I think many news organizations allow themselves to be manipulated by special interests – drug and device makers, academic medical centers, individual self-promotional researchers trying to get tenure and/or funding, etc.  There is not enough independent vetting of claims.  That’s why we launched HealthNewsReview.org.  We need to – all of us – become healthier skeptics, scrutinizing evidence, demanding data, understanding comparative effectiveness, always discussing costs and cost-effectiveness, understanding the uncertainties that exist and not reading certainty into situations where it doesn’t exist.  When we fail to be healthy skeptics, we’re all being manipulated by messages that are incomplete and imbalanced and may do us more harm than good.


Ask questions when it comes to health and medical news stories.  Just because a major media outlet is reporting a story, it doesn’t mean it’s completely fair, balanced and accurate.  Be a proactive, empowered and engaged  health consumer.  Please note, not all stories are misleading.  There are many great health stories and news reports by outstanding journalists and medical bloggers.

How do you feel about the way in which medical news is reported?  Do you think it’s fair, balanced and accurate?  We’d love to hear from you.

Complete Transparency

HealthNewsReview.org is funded by Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making.

Healthin30 is not a paid advertiser or sponsor to HealthNewsReview.org.  (Simply, HealthNewsReview.org offers valuable and useful information that consumers and journalists need to know.)

About Gary Schwitzer

Gary Schwitzer has specialized in health care journalism in his more than 30-year career in radio, television, interactive multimedia and the Internet.

He is publisher of the website HealthNewsReview.org, leading a team of more than two dozen people who grade daily health news reporting by major U.S. news organizations. In its first year, the project was honored with several journalism industry awards – the Mirror Award, honoring those who “hold a mirror to their own industry for the public’s benefit,” and the Knight-Batten Award for Innovations in Journalism. His blog – which is embedded within HealthNewsReview.org – was voted 2009 Best Medical Blog in competition hosted by Medgadget.com.

From 2001-2010, he was a tenured professor on the faculty of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, teaching health journalism and media ethics. He left that position to devote fulltime to his online publishing work.

In 2000, he was the founding Editor-In-Chief of the MayoClinic.com consumer health web site.

During the 1990’s, Gary produced groundbreaking shared decision-making videos for the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making based at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

He worked for four years at the National Office of the American Heart Association in Dallas.

He was a television medical news reporter for 14 years, with positions at CNN in Atlanta, WFAA-TV in Dallas, and WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee. He was head of the medical news unit at CNN, leading the efforts of ten staff members in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. After leaving the television news business, he has frequently been asked to write or speak on the state of medical journalism.

He served two terms as a member of the board of directors of the Association of Health Care Journalists for whom he authored the organization’s Statement of Principles. For that organization he also wrote a guide on how to report on medical research studies.

Schwitzer has written about the state of health journalism in JAMA, BMJ, the American Journal of Bioethics, the Journal of Medical Internet Research, PLoS Medicine, Nieman Reports, Quill, Columbia Journalism Review, Poynter.org, The Daily Beast, The American Editor, and MayoClinic.com. In 2009, the Kaiser Family Foundation published and distributed his white paper on “The State of US Health Journalism.”

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