With funding scarce, HealthNewsReview.org hurtles toward closure

The following post is written by Michael Schulson and was originally published on Undark. We are reposting it with permission because we think it does an excellent job of summarizing what HealthNewsReview.org does, what many health care journalists thought about our work, and why our work will be missed when we close at the end of 2018.


The widely-read media watchdog site, HealthNewsReview.org, announced last week that it will shut down operations at the end of the year unless a major funder steps forward. The closure would end a 12-year run for a website that has established a national reputation for its media criticism — and, along the way, garnered some critics of its own.

Gary Schwitzer, a former health care reporter for CNN and longtime professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, launched HealthNewsReview.org in 2006, modeling it on a site called Media Doctor Australia. The site, which currently has five full-time employees and dozens of freelance contributors, serves as a clearinghouse for reasoned — and sometimes biting — critiques of health care and medical coverage in the news media, as well as its distillation to consumers through press releases and other marketing materials. The site also aggressively covers larger questions of influence and conflict-of-interest in journalism.

In a conversation with Undark, Schwitzer said that he had always imagined the site as more than just a media watchdog. “I always viewed it as trying to improve media messages, because that might be the low-hanging fruit … for us to improve the broader public dialogue.”

Today, Schwitzer says, HNR averages around 700,000 unique visitors per year — small numbers compared to major news sites, but substantial traffic for a niche publication, and its influence among many health care journalists — and the roughly 6,000 reporters, doctors, and consumer advocates who subscribe to the site’s weekly newsletter — has been substantial.

Said Julia Belluz, the senior health care correspondent for Vox, when asked for her thoughts on the potential shuttering of HNR: “It really will leave a big void.”

The work of HNR was originally funded by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making, which later became the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation, which in turn merged with the nonprofit patient education and content company Healthwise. That funding source dried up in 2013, after which Schwitzer says he ran HNR for 19 months without any grant money, salary, or paid writers, an experience that, he says, he will not repeat. (HNR has around 50 freelance contributors — half of them working pro bono, Schwitzer said — in addition to its editorial staff.

HNR’s budget was rescued in 2014 with a $1.3 million, two-year grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a Houston-based foundation that aims to strengthen “social, governmental, and economic systems.” The funding allowed HNR to hire full-time staff besides Schwitzer, formalize a partnership with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, and expand coverage. The foundation renewed the grant for another two years in 2016, but Schwitzer soon received indications that there may not be further funding, and the foundation opted not to renew the grant again. (Undark has contacted the Arnold Foundation for comment).

As it stands, HNR’s annual budget in recent years has run to $850,000 per year — and even then, Schwitzer said, money has been tight. To keep the site going, he estimated, would require at least a million dollars per year — a sum for which he has been trying to find another backer for more than a year, talking to at least 25 potential rainmakers.

To date, however, those conversations have not borne fruit.

“Nada,” Schwitzer said. “Crickets.”


HNR’s signature feature is a 10-point checklist of the criteria that, Schwitzer argues, every journalist ought to include when writing about new medical treatments — including the costs of the intervention, a comparison with existing treatments, and accurate distillation of the science backing it up. Based on the checklist, HNR and its contributors have rated thousands of news articles, giving each a score from one to five stars. Schwitzer has worked hard to popularize the checklist, even distributing mousepads with the criteria printed on them.

After Schwitzer announced HealthNewsReview’s funding problems last week, dozens of journalists, physicians, and patient advocates took to Twitter to lament the possibility that the site might end.

Belluz told me that she and her colleagues “really took those reviews to heart.” Noting the high stakes of health care reporting — and the consequences of making mistakes — Belluz described HNR as “an important watchdog.”

“There’s nothing else that’s really like that,” she added.

Ivan Oransky, the editor of Retraction Watch and the current president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, told me that he uses the 10-point checklist in journalism classes he teaches at NYU, asking students to rate articles as if they were HNR reviewers. He would distribute the checklist to staff, too, when he worked at Reuters. “It’s really a lighthouse warning health care reporters about the shallow waters,” Oransky said. “I think it’ll be a big loss if this really means the end for HealthNewsReview.”

The site is not universally popular among health care journalists. “I will not mourn the disappearance of HealthNewsReview,” said Maggie Fox, a senior health writer at NBC News, in an interview with Undark. “I don’t think they ever did the job well,” she said, describing the site’s tone as “mean-spirited.”

Fox did stress the value of media criticism in general. But, she argued, HNR’s approach had done too little to engage with journalists about their work — by not seeking comment, for example, before publishing criticisms — and its criteria were not realistic for all stories in all newsrooms. “Their demands are for very long, very wordy stories with a lot of background information in them, without taking into account that many organizations have word count limits, and that understandability for whoever your audience is,” Fox told me, “you might not need or want all that detail in there.”

For his part, Schwitzer defends the site’s method. “This is not a beat where people want briefs. This is a beat where people want in-depth, analytical background context,” he said. “You got a better set of criteria? Let’s hear it. But I can tell you, in 12 years, nobody has come up with anything.”

In response to suggestions that the site was mean-spirited, Schwitzer pointed to the site’s weekly roundups of five-star coverage, as well as to the warm messages that he has received since announcing the site’s impending closure. “If this were mean-spirited, why the hell would I do this every day, for 12 years?” he said. “Because I get my jollies from that?”

Certainly, at a time of rampant misinformation online, the site’s imminent closure is likely to leave a niche unfilled. While some science-oriented publications — including Undark — publish media criticism, HNR is unique in having a staff devoted to monitoring public conversations about health care and health science.

“The sad thing is that I don’t see anything on the horizon that’s going to replace us,” said Schwitzer. “We’re going to see the same patterns of polluted messages and recurring flaws and recurring themes of misinformation that we saw when we started 12 years ago, and have seen ever since.

“And it just begs,” he added, “for somebody to be doing this kind of work moving forward, and to be doing it — let me be clear — at a far more ramped up level than even we were able to do.”


Michael Schulson is an American freelance writer covering science, religion, technology, and ethics. His work has been published by Pacific Standard magazine, Aeon, New York magazine, and The Washington Post, among other outlets, and he writes the Matters of Fact and Tracker columns for Undark.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

You might also like

Comments (7)

We Welcome Comments. But please note: We will delete comments left by anyone who doesn’t leave an actual first and last name and an actual email address.

We will delete comments that include personal attacks, unfounded allegations, unverified facts, product pitches, or profanity. We will also end any thread of repetitive comments. Comments should primarily discuss the quality (or lack thereof) in journalism or other media messages about health and medicine. This is not intended to be a forum for definitive discussions about medicine or science. Nor is it a forum to share your personal story about a disease or treatment -- your comment must relate to media messages about health care. If your comment doesn't adhere to these policies, we won't post it. Questions? Please see more on our comments policy.

Gary Schwitzer

June 28, 2018 at 1:35 pm

I wish to correct one misimpression I conveyed in the Undark article when I said that the response to my fundraising appeals was met with “Nada…Crickets.” In fact, one major funder did recently approach me with a very well-intentioned grant possibility, but I declined it after deeming it insufficient to allow us to continue at a meaningful level of operation.

Another piece about our work was published by our German counterparts at Medien-Doktor.de (“The German HealthNewsReview”). It is headlined, “Who will warn us when the watch dog remains silent? Gary Schwitzer, founder of HealthNewsReview.org, retires.” http://www.medien-doktor.de/medizin/sprechstunde/who-will-warn-us-when-the-watch-dog-remains-silent-gary-schwitzer-founder-of-healthnewsreview-org-retires/

Gary Schwitzer
Publisher

Tio

June 28, 2018 at 3:48 pm

Very sad to read this, again. On a positive note (if there can be any) I recommend to you readers the NHS Behind The Headlines https://www.nhs.uk/news/ – they do a great job at ‘debunking’ misleading health news. Maybe you should apply for an NHI in US https://grants.nih.gov/grants/about_grants.htm – I am not sure if they provide funding for such projects but being an educational and journalistic project then maybe a grant from such governmental-based institutions would be the best outcome. In other words, they could make something like NHS UK Behind the Headlines have in terms of reporting news stories. I honestly don’t want to see you go.

    Gary Schwitzer

    June 28, 2018 at 5:41 pm

    Tio,

    Thanks for your note. I am well aware of Behind the Headlines and have great admiration for their somewhat different approach. They use something in the media as their “hook” but then spend most of their time analyzing the evidence of the underlying study. They do not grade stories using a set of systematic criteria as we do. I think we complement each other, but overlap only a little.

    I know of no NIH funding mechanism for the kind of work we do. And, frankly. I am not sure I’d be comfortable accepting government funding for the kind of work we do. Our conflict of interest policy is more stringent than that of most of the news organizations we report on. And government agencies do have their own agendas and have sometimes in my career become quite politicized. One of the wonderful things about the funding that I have received in my 12 years running this project is that never – never – did my two core funders ever interfere, or make any suggestions about what we should publish or how we should publish it. And all of our reviewers must sign a disclosure agreement attesting to their lack of industry funding. So when we say that our team is an independent, expert team of reviewers, it means something.

    Gary Schwitzer
    Publisher

Tio

June 28, 2018 at 6:33 pm

I understand, Gary. I make educational content (books and documentaries) for the past 8+ years and offered everything for free and relied only on donations and I struggle all the time because of lack of funding. Your situation is very special since news reporting (especially health news) must be without bias, and funding (if not chosen properly) will drag you towards a biased path. You need a really special kind of funding that I feel is extremely difficult to get. In fact, I am surprised you managed to get that kind of funding for the past 12 years.

If I may ask, what exactly do you need the funding for? Do you have that stated anywhere on your website (I couldn’t find it)? I see that your budget was around $70,000 a month. And you say that you would need around $80,000 a month. From an outsider this is an enormous sum of money and I was wondering why does it cost that much to run HealthNewsReview.org? I am sure I am missing something (or a lot) and I am not familiar with this so that’s why I ask. I would imagine salaries to employees and website costs. Is there anything else? I make/manage websites for the past 13 years, and yours is based on WordPress, so I was wondering if the cost of the website is really high for you? Maybe I could help you with that as a volunteer if you need to cut costs. Form the post you say you have around 60,000 unique visitors a month, which should not mean a very expensive server. I ask these because I’ve seen people who were not familiar with how to manage a website paying 10x more than what they should (without exaggeration) and I cut their costs by a lot when I managed their websites. You can contact me at contact@tiotrom.com anytime if you prefer that.

    Gary Schwitzer

    June 29, 2018 at 5:59 pm

    Tio,

    Again, thanks for your concern on our behalf and for your offer of help.

    We have a very well-qualified and efficient web maintenance contractor who is very affordable. He is a wizard and is a creative troubleshooter who responds quickly.

    Why is our budget what it is? Let’s just take this week that concludes today as an example. We published 15 different articles this week. We have only 5 full-time editorial staff. Because I am torn in so many different directions, including fundraising, I don’t count myself among the full-time editorial staff anymore even though I once flew solo as the only full-time employee and touched every single piece published in our first 9 years. 15 articles from 5 full-time staff – one of which was an audio podcast that contained 5 different audio interviews. These are not shallow, quick-hit, brief articles. 7 of the 15 articles this week were systematic, criteria-driven reviews which involve 3 different reviewers per review. 2 of the 3 reviewers in each case are part-time contributors. They include top journalists, science communicators, clinician-researchers and MPHs and PhDs and others trained in the evaluation of evidence. In order to deliver the high-quality publications that we produce, this is an extremely labor-intensive effort. You can do the math to see that ours is a high-output, high-quality publishing effort that can’t afford to make mistakes. That carries a cost. There is no quick-and-dirty, cheap way to do this – or at least none that I would have my name associated with.

    We have scrambled to build the staff to a whopping 5 full-time editorial people. For my first 8.5 years, my funding had to be renewed annually. Then I went 19 months without any funding. Zero income. And since 2015 we have had two-year funding cycles. If this effort is worth doing, it demands expansion in funding, not contraction, and long-term guarantees, not short-term grants.

    Again, thanks for your interest in our work and for your concerns.

    Gary Schwitzer
    Publisher

Tio

July 1, 2018 at 3:47 am

So as I understand the costs are mainly to pay the staff. Ok. Thank you for the explanation Gary. For sure what you do is not at all shallow – I listen to your podcast all the time, and read most of the articles you post here.

I thank you again for all the work you and your staff do – I write books and in the book I am currently writing I give your organization as an example of unbiased, well explained and well researched health news that is in contrast with the mainstream media and their click bait and un-journalistic approach. We use healthnewsreview.org for our news system, alongside several other trusty sources. So, I am really “pissed off” (to be honest) to see you being forced to shut down this important project.

I thought that if your costs were not that big you could try to crowd fund it, but 80k a month is nearly impossible (in my view) to crowdfund.

I hope a miracle will happen and you’ll get the funds.

MCM

July 5, 2018 at 7:47 am

I am sad, disappointed, disheartened to see this site is going. I have pointed many friends and associates to the blog as a counter to main stream news headlines they pick up on Twitter. I was hopeful that it would encourage them to think beyond the headlines. With no good replacement it will be more difficult to do so!