Reader Response to "Too Brief To Matter" Discussion

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We received some interesting feedback in response to our last Publisher’s Note, “Too Brief To Matter – Part Two: The benefits/harms of briefs & digests,” and wanted to share some of it with you. We are planning a revision to our site that would provide a better place to host such discussions online in the future. More on that when we’re ready to roll out the changes. For now, here are some of your comments:

From Andrew Holtz:

“I agree with what the HealthNewsReview findings indicate: if a story isn’t worth devoting adequate space (or time) to, then it probably isn’t worth reporting at all. And as a reader/viewer, I don’t want my news cluttered with bits of partial information that are not useful. The issue reminds of the old sports news joke: “We have this partial score for you… Stanford 7.” A medical story that reports just benefits, for example, without including harms or alternatives is like a sports update that reports the score for only one team in the game. Without context, the information is worthless.”

From Robert Dacey:

“As a former consumer/patient representative on FDA expert panels (CDRH), I am acutely aware of the deluge of advertising disguised as news that saturates the news media on a daily basis. Added to the saturation is the DTC (direct-to-consumer) advertising. The purpose of consumer/patient information and education is to facilitate intelligent medical decisions. The purpose of DTC advertising and advertising disguised as news is to sell something. Your news review services are important. I share them with consumers, patients, and medical professionals.”

From William Bennett:

“Generally, I am NOT in favor of health news briefs, digests, health headline sections, and televised sound bites. Without complete information, these can be very misleading, and lead to incorrect conclusions regarding one’s health. If health teasers are displayed in magazines, only enough information should be given to draw the reader to their website, and the URL should be prominently displayed.”

From Josh Fischman:

“I’m glad, in your publisher’s note, you finally recognized that you have a basic objection to the brief format in health reporting, and not with individual briefs. It seemed silly to complain that short-form stories were short-form stories. I’m curious why you think editors and publishers have fallen in love with the brief. They don’t seem to deliver a good story to readers most of the time. So why do publications dote on them?”

From Joseph Pallas:

“Maybe this is an area where the traditional media really cannot match the capabilities of the online media. The problem is that the traditional media cannot easily point to the long form of the story, so they must either condense it or ignore it. This does not serve their readers/viewers well, and the question for responsible journalists is whether there is a way to tell people enough of the story to let them know that there is a story, while at the same time making it clear that they don’t have the whole story. Oh, and they have to do that without annoying their editors and publishers, because the straight-forward approach will inevitably resemble ‘You’re wasting your time reading this.’ Quite a challenge.”

From Ira Allen:

“In discussing the fallibility of news briefs and digests on health findings, I think it is important to recognize that a newspaper or magazine itself is a digest. At any length, a news story about a medical finding will be incomplete, which is why wider access to original journal articles is necessary. To paraphrase the old joke, now that we know how important a health news story is, we are just quibbling about length. The more information about risks and caveats of a particular treatment the better. But at some point, whether it is blind faith or printing boilerplate that reminds readers of a study’s limitation, we have to give consumers credit for using their common sense and sorting through the information relevant to each of them. I suspect that because health is the No. 1 topic of non-celebrity, non-pornographic Internet searches, readers have already shown themselves to be savvy enough to go get the details elsewhere. You are absolutely correct that space is available. It’s a matter of editorial decision-makers choosing how to allocate it. However, that choice is generally based on what an editor believes the readers are interested in, and long may it be so! If you add 200 words to a medical story, it will not come at the expense of Jennifer Lopez’s hoodie. It will come at the expense of another health story. And therein may lie a solution: print fewer health stories of greater length. But doing that may rob a reader of important cues. I can read accounts of 100 new studies, but the one about a condition that affects me will cause me to read it more carefully and seek more information. The news article, however skimpy, thus serves the same purpose as the headline — encouraging you to read more. The day the newspaper or news magazine is assumed to be the last word on anything is the day journalism dies.”

(I know Ira and consider him a friend. So I don’t think he’ll mind if I point out that he used 320 words to respond to our note about the harms of stories of less than 300 words. A thoughtful response, Ira, and we post it in its entirety.)

We’ve just posted a review of a CBS News story on an osteoporosis drug. It contained 60 words and consumed about 15 seconds of airtime. It is one of only 8 stories (out of more than 420 reviewed) that we’ve given our lowest zero-star score.

And a new U.S. News & World Report story, “Prostate drug shows safer side,” ran 163 words and was reviewed with only a one-star score.

We welcome other comments on this or other topics related to the practice of health and medical journalism.

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