Too Brief To Matter – Part Two: The Benefits/Harms of Briefs and Digests

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We want to re-open a discussion we first started earlier this year in a note called “Too Brief To Matter” about the value of health news briefs, digests, “health headline” sections and the like.

In the 17 months that we’ve been reviewing stories from about 60 major U.S. news organizations, we have given our top five-star score to only one story of less than 300 words.

We’re coming to the conclusion that such “briefs” may do more harm than good. Almost by default they oversimplify medical research stories. They generally fail to adequately explain how big is the potential benefit of the idea being discussed, or how big is the potential harm. They usually fail to scrutinize costs, conflicts of interest, or the quality of the evidence.

A case in point is a 191-word story, “Keep an ovary, preserve a brain,” by Katie Hobson, senior editor, health/medicine, for U.S. News & World Report magazine. We rated the story as unsatisfactory on four of our ten criteria.

Katie wrote to us and allowed us to publish her comments:

“Thanks for your site, and for updating reporters on when our articles are reviewed. I have absolutely no quibble with the need for your site and for more stringent reporting standards for health, medicine and science.

That said, I do have a quibble with reviewing less-than-200-word items done for our HealthWatch page, which is a quick digest of the week’s health news. These items — including the one by me that you just reviewed — are almost always condensed versions of far longer stories that appear first on our website, during the week. So first, it seems fair to review the original article rather than the brief summary (in my case, the larger piece might have answered some of your questions, might not have, since it was a Q&A). More broadly, why review briefs at all? There are plenty of long stories in the magazine and on the site which definitely merit review and your criteria should be applied to them to see how they hold up. But given that your list of criteria is literally almost as long as the items themselves, it doesn’t seem appropriate to expect a health digest to be comprehensive; there simply isn’t room. It’s as if you went through the front section of the NYT and criticized the regional briefs for not giving the complete history of a conflict and not consulting outside experts.

Certainly, there’s a larger question as to whether a digest section should even exist, since it’s impossible to include all the facets of a study in that tiny space. But shouldn’t that issue be debated, rather than applying standards that seem more suitable to longer (even over 300-word) articles, rather than quick news hits?

Thanks for reading,


Katie and I have exchanged some thoughts in a followup e-mail and we welcome an open discussion about some of the issues she raises.

Our stance:

Not all USN&WR readers use the USN&WR website; all they see is the magazine. That’s why we think it’s fair and legitimate to review what’s in the magazine.

To the question “Why review briefs at all?” we counter with the question “Why publish briefs at all?” Katie writes about the limitations of addressing our criteria – “there simply isn’t room…in that tiny space.” But the magazine has decided these stories are only worth a tiny space; they could easily find more space. It’s an editorial decision we’re trying to change.

And that’s the larger question Katie and I (and probably many other journalists) think should be discussed and debated openly. Clearly, you can’t fault the writers and reporters who do their best to cover topics when assigned to write a brief or digest. But editors and publishers should take a hard look at the issues we raise about what’s left out – perhaps to the harm of the reader – for the sake of brevity.

And this is not just a magazine phenomenon. Network TV news health stories – across the board – get weaker reviewers than any other medium in our first 17 months. Self-imposed time limits are usually at the root of the weak review. Yet time is found in many newscasts for Anna Nicole Smith, for Lindsay Lohan, etc.

And newspapers? This week my local Star Tribune had a full-page (except for a 10” X 13” ad) of eight news briefs on one page – none reported locally, all from wire services. Five were health stories – none more than 225 words. Even a “New York Fashion Week” story on page A2 got more words than that – complete with description of Jennifer Lopez’s design of “denim boy shorts with a sparkling brown hoodie.”

Space is available. It’s a matter of editorial decision-makers choosing how to allocate it.

Meantime, kudos to the Los Angeles Times for a series published in August on the influence of drug marketing.

Several excerpts from that series:

"In a nation that consumed $279-billion worth of prescription medications in 2006 – spending 80% of that on brand name drugs – (drug marketing) efforts appear to be paying off. Americans filling a prescription choose brand-name products 37% of the time, even though three quarters of all prescription drugs in the U.S. are available in cheaper generics."

"Each day in the United States, an army of roughly 100,000 pharmaceutical company sales reps storms the waiting rooms and offices of the nation’s 311,000 office-based physicians."

"The drug industry, according to estimates by the Center for Public Integrity, has spent $758 million on lobbying – more than any other industry – since 1998."

A series of stories – thousands of words. Reporter Melissa Healy wrote to me that she was overwhelmed by public response to the effort. Good in-depth
health journalism is no
t only the right thing to do – it may improve the bottom line.

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