5 resolutions for reading and writing about health care in 2018

Joy Victory is deputy managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets at @thejoyvictory.

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As the season of New Year’s resolutions rolls around, it’s inevitable: Health and fitness stories will dominate our news feeds in the next few days and weeks. To help both writers and readers of healthcare information, we’ve put together a few resolutions that are handy now–and any time of year:

Read–and heed–our 10 newly refurbished criteria for health news reporting and news release writing. If a news story or news release meets most or all of our criteria, you can have a greater degree of confidence that the information is accurate, balanced and complete. While the criteria are most relevant for new treatments, procedures or medical devices, they also apply to diet trends and fitness fads that are popular news topics this time of year.

Be careful with screening advice. Some surprisingly common recommendations in health care stories aren’t actually supported by high-quality evidence. For example, this NBC News story lists an annual physical as a top resolution. However, evidence-based guidelines say that if you’re healthy with no symptoms, such physicals are unlikely to help you stay well and live longer. And they can lead to additional tests and treatments that may do more harm than good. This is also true for many cancer screening tests. One important reality: Cancer screenings are often unequivocally framed as important because “early detection saves lives” — messaging that minimizes the potential harms that people need to know about.

Be wary of stigmatizing language. Two of the biggest public health problems in the US are obesity and the opioid epidemic. They’re also too often stigmatized–the lead photo and some of the language in this recent Salon article being a prime example. To counter this problem, we’ve put together toolkits for reporting on obesity and addiction without promoting stigma.

Check the sourcing. From essential oils to patient advocacy organizations to health care journalists themselves, conflicts of interest are a huge problem in the information flow to the public. Why should you care? Who stands to gain what is always an important question to ask–whether you’re a journalist or a health care consumer. 

Finally, watch out for animal research. A recent Newsweek story tempts readers with the headline “How to lose weight? Pay attention to your body’s internal ‘bathroom scale.‘” After a (stigmatizing) photo and two highly sensational paragraphs, readers are finally informed that this is all predicated on a study that involved mice stuffed with capsules. Oy vey. We’d like to say this kind of reporting is rare for major media publications, but as we reported in a recent year-ender post looking back at 2017 health news trends, it isn’t.

If recent patterns endure, 2018 is likely to bring more mice studies turned into human headlines, more single-source stories where that source has an undisclosed conflict of interest, more stories that exaggerate or emphasize benefits while minimizing or ignoring harms, and other reporting flaws. Fortunately for you, we’ll be here helping you make sense of these and other claims, keeping steady with our resolve to help you improve your critical thinking about health care. Cheers to that!

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