Kicking off 2017 year-ender series

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Gary Schwitzer is the publisher who founded nearly 12 years ago.  Kevin Lomangino is the managing editor.  They have worked together on this project, in changing roles, for seven years.

This is the first of six year-ender pieces we have planned to wrap up 2017.  In this first of the series we’ll provide an overview of highlights (or lowlights) of what we observed in reviewing media messages about health care every day in our 11th year.

Don’t take $ from industries you report on

We didn’t plan to make such a big deal about this issue in 2017, but it unavoidably fell in our laps and we weren’t about to run from it.  By the end of the year, we became the leading voice on conflicts of interest in news organizations that cover health/medical/science news.  In a nutshell, we wrote about many examples of news organizations taking money from the industries they cover every day.

We firmly believe that is an avoidable and unacceptable practice.  To see how much time and effort we devoted to the topic, visit our primer, “The trail of tainted funding: Conflicts of interest in healthcare, academics, public relations and journalism,” and the nearly three dozen examples we list on that page. The response to this series of articles from the general public and from some journalists has been strong and supportive. But some who have been criticized have demonstrated a thin-skinned, defensive, closed-minded attitude that does not serve the public good. This further threatens the credibility of some aspects of journalism at a time when you would think that journalists would do everything they could to retain (or regain) the public’s trust.


Related to the above, our scrutiny has now led three major organizations to revise their ethics or editorial policies, and others may be considering changes.

We exposed hidden industry influence on opinion articles at STAT News, leading that organization to retract a ghostwritten op-ed piece and revise its op-ed submission policies

The Poynter Institute revisited and revised its ethics policy after we criticized its acceptance of alcohol industry funding for two journalism workshops.

But the granddaddy of them all was our bulldogged investigation of a University of Maryland news release about chocolate milk for concussions – not this year, but worth remembering in this context.  It led to an internal university investigation that reported “a concerning lack of understanding of the basic principles of conflict of interest (COI) in research at all levels of the process.” And the internal report made 15 recommendations to bring the university’s procedures in line with accepted norms.

the Alliance for Patient Access

More content highlights

We didn’t stop digging when we busted the STAT ghostwriters; we also put a spotlight on the pharma front group, the Alliance for Patient Access, that facilitated the flawed op-ed. We showed how the organization uses politicians and the news media to advance industry’s agenda, while keeping its deep pharmaceutical connections hidden from public scrutiny. We also showed how some news organizations play along with this charade by failing to alert their readers to op-ed authors’ pharma conflicts of interest.

We published extensively on stem cells, calling attention to misleading stem cell ads and strip mall stem cell clinics.  We hosted a Twitter chat on  #stemcellhype and a produced a podcast on stem cell harms. It was one of 12 terrific podcasts that feature voices and perspectives you won’t hear anywhere else.


This year we gave presentations to audiences in Puerto Rico and Uganda.  We presented six guest lectures to students on campuses from Massachusetts, Minnesota and Wisconsin.  And we spoke at conferences of the following professional organizations:  the American Association of Medical Colleges; the American Heart Association; the Association of Health Care Journalists;  the Lown Institute; Minnesota Health Strategy & Communications Network; Northwest Association for Biomedical Research in Seattle; at Georgetown University Medical Center; and The Poynter Institute. Details on most of these appearances are listed online.

Pre-publication news release review

Unprecedented offer to PR professionals

Another form of outreach was our unique offer to review news releases about health care interventions prior to publication. Rather than get called out by us after the fact and risk questions about their credibility, PR professionals now have the option to get our constructive criticism before issuing a news release when there’s still time to improve the message. Early participants in our pilot effort thanked us for “an extremely helpful process” and said they were incorporating many of the suggestions for improvement that we provided. Please help us spread the word about this service!

We don’t simply criticize; see how we offer help

We overhauled the description of our 10 Review Criteria – the foundation of this project — with new examples, graphics, and videos. Here’s one of them:

We also wrote or updated instructional primers on more than a dozen health care topics that are prone to misunderstanding. It’s a gold mine of tips for journalists to write more knowledgeably about health care and for consumers to read more critically.

Take a look at our ever-expanding toolkit for many more educational resources that we are continually updating and refining.

Our people

We continued adding to our terrific team. New contributors this year:

We’re also pleased to announce that one of our most talented and prolific freelance contributors, Mary Chris Jaklevic, will be joining us as a full-time member of the staff in January 2018. Whether it’s highlighting the problems with surrogate outcomes or examining the use of patients as PR tools, Mary Chris has done it all on the health care beat and will be doing more of it for us in 2018. Her hiring was made possible by individual gifts to our donor fund.

Please consider an end-of-year gift

So you can see that all individual gifts make a difference. This is our last chance this year to ask you to support our efforts with a donation.  This link takes you to a secure University of Minnesota Foundation website, where you can make a donation with a credit card, or use this mail-in form to send a check if you prefer. (Specify the fund #20804) All donations go directly to the operation of this project, which accepts no advertising and is 100% dependent on philanthropic support.  Thank you.


Here’s a preview of what’s ahead in our year-ender series:

Monday December 18:  PR news release wrap-up.  Closer look at the major themes of what we observed, as we now approach our 500th review.

Tuesday December 19:  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.

Thursday December 21:  Perspectives from the woman who wakes up every morning and searches the news for us every day – all year long.

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

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Comments (1)

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December 15, 2017 at 8:05 am

Congratulations on another year of making a significant contribution to securing our health news, making sure it reflects facts rather than hype. Harnessing education to sharpen and clarify the quality of health information families read in popular publications is gift-giving year ’round.