HealthDay’s rehashed PR is hurting news consumers and journalism

Kevin Lomangino is the managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org. He tweets as @KLomangino.

coin flip

Journalism or PR? Readers face a coin flip with some HealthDay news stories.

On some days, half or more of the consumer news output of HealthDay, the health news wire service, consists of rewritten news releases that contain little if any original reporting. These stories are among the content that HealthDay says it licenses to “thousands of media companies, hospitals, managed care organizations, publishers, non-profits and government agencies.”

Other HealthDay stories receive more thorough treatment from journalists. These stories include independent sources to vet claims and provide context. Some receive top marks for quality from our team of expert reviewers.

It’s almost as if readers are flipping a coin any time they click on a HealthDay piece. “Heads” may lead them to real journalism that carefully examines claims and balances them with an independent perspective. “Tails” may lead them to rehashed PR that is likely to exaggerate benefits, minimize or ignore harms, and gloss over key limitations in the evidence.

The consequences of that coin flip were evident in two stories that I looked at last week.

Skepticism on screening; buying blood thinner dementia benefits

The first story explored the claim, based on a study by French researchers, that screening for people at average risk of colon cancer should start at age 45 instead of 50. The news release announcing the study touted the results as robust and definitive: “These findings demonstrate that it is at 45 years old that a remarkable increase in the colorectal lesions frequency is shown, especially in the detection rate of early neoplasia,” said the study’s lead researcher. He added that “the results of our research strongly indicate that screening for colorectal cancer should begin at the age of 45.”

But HealthDay’s appropriately skeptical piece wasn’t content to simply regurgitate the claim. It ran the study past American Cancer Society Chief Medical Officer Otis Brawley, MD, who pointed out a “major problem” with the research:

All of the patients were referred to a gastroenterologist for a colonoscopy, presumably because they had symptoms.

In contrast, colon cancer screening, by definition, is done when people are symptom-free. The point is to catch cancer early or, better yet, abnormal growths that can be removed before they have a chance to become cancerous.

“These findings aren’t going to change what we recommend as far as screening average-risk people,” Brawley said.

Brawley went on to describe the significant potential harms of some types of colon cancer screening — something never hinted at in the news release — and explained why current guidelines don’t recommend screening younger people who don’t have a family history of the disease.

It was an excellent and informative story — but just imagine for a moment if HealthDay hadn’t taken the time to seek out Brawley’s input! The screening message reaching consumers, based on the news release, would have been the polar opposite of what was reported. Any readers basing their screening decisions on the story would have been badly misinformed.

And yet that scenario is just what played out with another HealthDay story last week where the coin flip turned up tails. The story reported on a study claiming that blood-thinning drugs might help prevent dementia in patients with heart arrhythmias. But as our review of the story pointed out, the piece seemed to be based entirely on a news release from the European Society of Cardiology (an organization that has previously been nominated to our “Wall of Shame” due to the poor quality of some of its news releases). No independent sources were quoted, and the quotes contained in the story came directly from the news release. There was no information in the story that couldn’t be traced directly back to the news release.

Predictably, the story presented the benefits in terms that are likely to overstate the true effect of blood thinners on dementia, if any. It also failed to mention the significant potential harms of blood thinning drugs; gave short shrift to the limitations inherent in this kind of study, and neglected to inform readers of an important conflict of interest — the study authors both receive payments from companies that make blood-thinning drugs.

This is not an isolated example. A look through our review archive reveals many other recent stories, all based on news releases, that are likely to misinform readers on important health topics:

Acupuncture in the ER: No, study did not prove it was ‘safe and effective’

Can a breath test detect stomach cancers? HealthDay story has notes of caution, but also veers into speculation

HealthDay story on antibiotics for ear infections is less informative than the news release

We have to do better than this

This is not a criticism of HealthDay journalists, whom I’m certain would all prefer to be doing real journalism rather than rewriting news releases.

In fact, it’s clear that when HealthDay journalists spend the time needed to report thoroughly, they are more than capable of producing top-notch stories. Our reviewers have lauded a number of recent HealthDay stories that they deemed exemplary:

A pat on the back to HealthDay for thorough report on ulcerative colitis drug

Gastric balloon for weight loss: HealthDay avoids hot air by balancing PR spin with skepticism from independent sources

HealthDay does a good job reporting on study of long-term weight loss after bariatric surgery

I don’t know why HealthDay considers some news releases worthy of journalistic scrutiny while others get passed along to readers with little more than a light edit. HealthDay’s executive editor declined my request to comment on this issue. One can speculate that this is a strategic decision designed to yield more publishable content at lower cost. But while that strategy may pay off for the HealthDay bottom line, it’s deceptive to readers and a problem for health care journalism as an industry.

Readers can be hurt by the incomplete, unbalanced, inaccurate information sometimes found in health care public relations messages — even those from top academic institutions. If they’re not willing to carefully scrutinize that information, journalism organizations shouldn’t pass along these PR messages to the public as “news.”

Attacks on the credibility of our profession are mounted daily from many corners including the White House. The last thing we need is to give substance to this damaging rhetoric.

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A note about the numbers: On several days over the past year we’ve looked at HealthDay’s daily news stories about specific studies and compared them against the news releases that were also issued to promote those studies. On January 11 and January 12, 2017, we found that 5 out of 12 and 7 out of 12 HealthDay stories, respectively, were based largely or entirely on news releases and contained no independent sourcing. On July 6, 2017, we found that 8 out of 12 stories were based on news releases and had no original reporting. On October 31, 2017, 6 out of 12 health stories were based largely or entirely on news releases — it’s not clear where a 13th story headlined “Want a Pet But Can’t Have a Dog?” originated.

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