"Churnalism" piece in Columbia Journalism Review too forgiving of medical breakthrough news releases

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We generally applaud the work of the Columbia Journalism Review.

And we applaud the fact it brought attention to an interesting new Churnalism.com website.

The CJR piece offers this definition:

“A piece of ‘churnalism’ is a news article that is published as journalism, but is essentially a press release without much added.”

But there’s at least one troubling section in the CJR story. It stated:

“Of course, not all churnalism is bad. There are plenty of press releases that are in the public interest. It would be odd if news outlets did not publish news about medical breakthroughs, about major government announcements, about exciting new consumer products.”

That’s enough to make me – and perhaps anyone else who cares about the quality of health care journalism – rise up out of the chair.

We hope that Churnalism.com will appreciate that news releases that tout medical breakthroughs are generally NOT in the public interest. They often lead to single source stories that don’t evaluate the claims of breakthroughs, often don’t seek independent perspectives, often don’t investigate conflicts of interest behind the claims, and often concern claims that don’t, indeed, turn out to be breakthroughs.

This is not in the public interest. It wouldn’t be “odd” if news outlets didn’t publish such news. It would be laudable.

Whether a story appeared to rely solely or largely on a news release is one of our 10 criteria that we apply to the evaluation of stories on HealthNewsReview.org.

Indeed, we pointed to a classic case study of over-reliance on news releases on this blog just this week.

So we think the CJR piece requires correction on at least this one important point.

Nonetheless, read the piece and visit the Churnalism.com website.

It’s a clear and bothersome trend. And despite what the CJR piece said, it is perhaps more troubling in health care news than in any other field.

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Comments (6)

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Michael Kirsch, M.D.

March 14, 2011 at 8:49 am

You can spot the ‘press release’ nature of medical news articles by their headlines, which are often way ahead of the data. They lure and tantalize readers, who are likely to be misled.

Andrew Holtz

March 14, 2011 at 12:02 pm

The CJR attitude toward accepting uncritical regurgitation of news releases, if they are in the health or medical arena, reminds me of an attitude that I’ve encountered ever since I was in school… that it’s okay for reporters to suspend their usual questioning, skeptical attitude when the subject is medicine or science, because in these areas the experts know best.
That abdication of journalism’s normal role is troubling for at least two reasons:
1) the experts are human, not infallible, and subject to all the biases and conflicts that everyone is burdened with; so their positions deserve the same scrutiny as anyone’s,
2) the apparent acceptance of scientific illiteracy among journalists. As a profession, we cannot continue to defer to experts simply because we lack the appropriate education and training to know how to ask pertinent questions.
Journalism schools and news organizations need to raise their standards so that all journalists know the basic concepts of science and math. Assigning reporters who don’t know the difference between absolute risk and relative risk to write stories about medical research… who don’t know the issues with false positives to write about health screening campaigns… is like sending reporters to the state legislature who don’t know how a bill is introduced.
Health care is almost a fifth of our economy. It’s effect on our lives and deaths is incalculable. It’s too important to not question.

Susan FItzgerald

March 14, 2011 at 2:56 pm

I totally agree with this post and the commenters — why have journalists at all if news outlets will just post NRs unquestioningly?
Like many, I’ve been on both sides of this divide and I always thought it was my job as a reporter to make the person who issued the news release explain it to me in terms I could understand, so that I could in turn explain it to somebody else (the public)…if they can’t explain what it means to the lay person, I can’t write about it. And that set my standard for writing NRs, too.
This is one more reason to regret the loss of “health” reporters, “science” reporters, “finance” reporters and other beats because those people develop some history and expertise along the way and can’t be BS’d so easily.
I also offer another sense for “churnalism” — saying the same stuff over and over with a new lede, from earthquakes to stock market to interest rates to health reform to crime stories, celebrity “news” etc., etc. News outlets are such an echo chamber, I stop paying attention to all the grabber headlines when the stories have about as much substance as The National Enquirer.
Please, make it stop!