2017 year-ender: What I’ve learned from reading health news every morning

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Jill U. Adams is a health journalist and an associate editor at HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets as @juadams.

Each morning, I scan 26 news sites for stories that report on some claim of a health benefit by a specific intervention. I then compile a list of said stories, and email them to the HealthNewsReview.org team. By the end of this year, I may hit 1,000 articles.

As a health care reporter, I have found it’s a worthy practice. It helps me keep up with the news of the day and demonstrates how any one item—a prominent study or new screening guidelines—can be framed in different ways. I’ll admit to having favorite sites and less-than-favorite ones. And yet any of the news stories I log and share with the HealthNewsReview.org team has the potential to be a 5-star story or a 2-star story, irrespective of the news outlet. (FoxNews.com has never had a 5-star story in 11 years but hope springs eternal!)

I can’t emphasize this enough: The systematic process of reviewing, using our 10 criteria, really does work to counter any potential bias on my part. No system is perfect, of course, but when I am a reviewer myself, I’ve found that my assessment of the quality of a news story can change dramatically from my initial morning read to the final published review. A story that seemed quite good after a quick skim may turn out to be lacking on several of our criteria and vice-versa. Also, three reviewers work each news story.

As for my impressions of the state of health news from my morning practice, here’s a quick roundup:

Coffee. It’s neither terribly good nor terribly bad for you.

Celebrities. A study about the most attractive female lips offered up a chance for news outlets to post photos of Angelina Jolie. We’ve seen the same thing with many other celeb-focused health stories. New treatment for morning sickness? Kim Kardashian.  Wacky health claims? Gwenyth Paltrow. A “struggle” with chronic dry eyes? Marisa Tomei. It’s clickbait.

Headlines. Beware the hyped-up headline. Nothing makes me skeptical faster than a headline telling me how to live longer. And it’s hard not do a second roll of eyes when I scan ahead to see the article describing findings from an association study. I also watch for any of publisher Gary Schwitzer’s seven words you shouldn’t use.

Headlines, head-spinning version. Talk about different framings to a story! In April we blogged about seemingly opposite headlines on stories covering the same study. One news outlet’s story on colonoscopy warned readers that delaying the procedure was risky; another proclaimed waiting was okay.

Healthy foods. Please no. You can have healthy diets — such as a healthy pattern of eating that is rich in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. But there is no one food that will prevent cancer or make you sleep better or make you heart healthy despite what headlines may tell you. Why? Because there is no evidence for such things. Most of the studies on individual foods are association studies that rely on participants’ self-report of what they eat. They are not clinical trials that randomly put participants into an “eat blueberries” group and an “avoid blueberries” group and test the intervention for long enough in enough people to show causation.

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Ill-defined interventions. Exercise is a prime example. Everyone knows by now that “exercise” is good for you. A health news story looking at exercise as an intervention should be specific  — how often, how long, and how intensely the physical fitness was measured. In December, we called out the lack of specificity in this HealthDay story review.

Proxy outcomes. Another HealthDay story, Can Coffee Perk Up Heart Health, Too?, reports on a study that measured the activation of particular gene clusters involved in inflammation. It’s quite a jump from these molecules to inflammation in general to inflammation that leads to pathology, much less to actual health outcomes. A New York Times story from the same month, Running may be good for your knees, reported on a study that found different inflammatory mediators in the knee’s synovial fluid after running or sitting for 30 minutes–which is a proxy, or a surrogate marker, for knee health.

A 2014 analysis by the Media Insight Project found that about 6 out of 10 Americans admit they do nothing more than scan the headlines. With a year’s worth of reading health news under my belt, I challenge you to read beyond the headline, especially those headlines that really grab your attention. Remember to stay curious and skeptical.

More 2017 year-ender posts

Friday, December 15: Kicking off 2017 HealthNewsReview.org year-ender series

Monday, December 19: Major themes from a year’s worth of news release reviews

Tuesday, December 18: Ranking news organizations by star score. Who’s done best? Who has the most room for improvement in 2018?

Wednesday, December 20:  A great year for research progress in mice – although news often made it sound like it was in humans

Friday, December 22: Memorable lines from memorable interviews from 12 podcasts we produced this year.

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