Struggles of mid-sized papers trying to cover health care news

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Let me be clear that the following is a glimpse of only one story each from two different medium-sized papers. So it should not be construed as systematic overall praise for one nor an indictment of another.

But the examples – the likes of which we see every day in our work – nonetheless hold some lessons about the struggles squeezed staffs at mid-sized papers face in trying to cover complex health care news. Yet there’s a lesson herein about how one can be successful despite the pressures.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel got a five-star score for its story about an unproven approach to autism coming to the local area. Excerpt of the review:

“A new and unproven approach to autism pops up in a local community. A reporter and his newspaper have several choices:

1. Accept the claims of the promoters at face value
2. Ignore the issue entirely.
3. Dig in, scrutinize the claims, and attempt a public service by evaluating the evidence for local readers.

Thankfully, this reporter and this paper chose #3.”

But the San Jose Mercury News got a low two-star score (that one of our reviewers commented was too high) for its story about a new device being used in its area to treat blood clots. Excerpt of our review:

This story baldly misstates the evidence (or lack thereof) supporting the effectiveness of a device used to dissolve certain blood clots. Indeed, a careful reader would not even have to delve into the medical evidence to realize something is amiss. The story calls the Trellis Peripheral Infusion Device “life-saving,” effective, and safer and quicker than alternative therapies. However, it notes that only a handful of doctors across the country use the device (even though it has been on the market since 2005) and the clinician quoted in the story says he has used it on only eight patients, even though he sees more than 100 similar patients every year. A reader might well wonder, “If this device is so great, why do so few doctors use it and why do even those who do use it prefer to use different treatments for the overwhelming majority of their patients?” The story ignores that glaring inconsistency.

This story is also an extreme example of disease-mongering. It portrays deep vein thrombosis as a leading killer. However, not only is the death toll figure it uses taken from a misleading statement on a web site sponsored by a pharmaceutical company that sells drugs to treat the condition, the quoted number of deaths is 30 times the estimated toll listed in a recent report from the U.S. Surgeon General.

We wanted to point out this comparison – random and incomplete though it may be. Both reviews were posted the same day. Both stories done by mid-sized papers. One excelled in scrutinizing claims. One failed in our view.

Perhaps one approach could be a model for the other.

We need to help journalists do a better job of healthy skepticism. Otherwise how in the world will their readers ever get the full story?

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Gregory D. Pawelski

August 5, 2010 at 9:50 am

I have somewhat of a sense about newspapers trying to cover any health care news, let alone complex health care news. The “pressures” being the editors. Reporters at our small newspaper went after the Commonwealth when an outbreak happened at a personal care home. They were hit with stone walls everywhere, the welfare department, the health department and because the home was within city limits, the city health department. All the reporters got was that the problems were corrected. Their editors wouldn’t run a story because the official sources said the home took proper corrective action. The particular home had bed bugs and scabies. Of course, when I approached one of the reporters about a scabies outbreak at the nursing home I yanked my mother out of seventeen months ago, it went on deaf ears. Not the reporter’s ears, the editors. When the newspaper has to report on one of its main sources of revenue, no news gets out on it. The only buck$ in town.