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Independent sources take a vacation from Times coverage

vacation signAt HealthNewsReview.org we’re used to seeing health stories that lack multiple sources, rely heavily on news releases and neglect independent viewpoints. We’re admittedly not used to seeing such stories published in The New York Times, and yet the Gray Lady published three stories lacking independent viewpoints on Monday, August 17.

We think it’s essential that stories include second opinions (at minimum) from independent experts who have no vested interest in the therapy being reported on. It’s one of our 10 criteria for reviewing health news stories. But the Times fell down on the job and the coverage suffered accordingly.

This story cites one source – the senior author.
“Music can help recovery from surgery.”

An independent expert might have given this story — a review of many studies on the use of music in easing pain after surgery — more depth by offering an explanation of how music affects pain relief. There’s some speculation that music can trigger the release of opioids in the brain or that music acts as a distraction from the pain. An expert might have also introduced the idea of the impact music could play on chronic pain, not just pain following surgery. The cool thing about independent voices is that you often get unexpected perspectives.

Ditto for this one:
A Mouthwash Rinse May Predict Throat Cancer Recurrence

This story names the study author but in the absence of a direct quote, it’s unclear if the story drew most of its facts and assertions from a news release.

The mouthwash rinse article also omitted some important caveats about the study found in the news release such as:

  • “D’Souza stresses that this type of testing is new. She also notes that this is a rare cancer, and that recurrence is even rarer still.”
  • “Oropharyngeal cancer accounts for 2.8 percent of new cancers in the United States; it is often treated successfully with surgery. “

While the news release states the cancer is relatively rare, the Times piece stresses the growth in Western countries of “a kind of throat cancer that is rapidly increasing in heterosexual men.”

An independent expert may have offered some reservations about the research, provided additional support for the finding, or highlighted similar work being done at another institution. We’ll never know.

And this one:
Breast-feeding’s heart benefits” quotes only the lead author.

We’re certain that it’s not often that the NYT publishes three single-source health stories in one day. We understand that it was a Monday in August, and the health news desk might have been short-staffed. But do August readers deserve lower-quality news stories than those reading at other times of the year?

There are plenty of times that bias and conflict of interest goes unchecked in health news even when we seek balance and viewpoints from others that don’t have a stake in the research. We can help combat bias by seeking independent voices. We know that reporters covering the health beat develop a large network of sources they can tap when needed. For those on deadline that don’t know where to turn, HealthNewsReview.org maintains a list of industry-independent experts that are ready and willing to provide an independent viewpoint.

Note: Publisher Gary Schwitzer also noted some problems with “Daily Coffee May Boost Colon Cancer Survival,” a fourth Times story published on Monday.


Kathlyn Stone is an associate editor for HealthNewsReview.org.

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