Writing about health care is complex and nuanced. On this page for journalists, we offer 1) primers for writing about complex medical topics, 2) advice for common pitfalls healthcare journalists face, and 3) in-depth case studies on how we cracked open several important medical stories in recent years.
Another page–tips for analyzing studies & health care claims–also has primers to help journalists and the general public learn how to scrutinize what they hear or read about health care interventions.
Also: “Covering Medical Research: A Guide for Reporting on Studies,” written by HealthNewsReview.org publisher Gary Schwitzer and published by the Association of Health Care Journalists, aims to help journalists analyze and write about health and medical research studies. The guide is available to AHCJ members for free online. Non-members may purchase a print copy by contacting AHCJ – firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Primers for writing about health care and complex medical topics
CANCER IMMUNOTHERAPY DRUGS:
–6 tips for writing accurately about cancer immunotherapy drugs
–How to report accurately about the harms, side effects and risks of immunotherapy
–Can immunotherapy actually trigger cancer? A look at emerging research
STEM CELL THERAPIES:
9 tips to combat stem cell hype in your stories
GENETICS AND BIOTECH:
Tips for evaluating claims about genetics and biotech and our biohype bibliography
ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE & DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS:
Journalists need to prune the overgrowth in the jungle of supplement news
2. Advice on common pitfalls healthcare journalists face
- CBS proclaims ‘cancer breakthrough’ & why that gets FDA’s ‘breakthrough’ designation wrong
- Why it’s time for journalists to stop using the word ‘controversial’ to describe medical science
- 7 words and more you shouldn’t use in medical news
- Risk communication: Patients are not plane crash victims and hospitals are not plummeting jetliners
COSTS OF TREATMENT
SCRUTINIZING THE RESEARCH
- Our full toolkit of tips for understanding studies
- Small studies: Be vigilant when writing about them and and skeptical when reading about them
- Why you should back away slowly from case studies
- Why we should all be wary when PR machines promote phase 2 studies
- How much significance should health news give to statistically nonsignificant results?
- Null but not void: Why journalists need to stop ignoring negative studies
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
- Primer – The trail of tainted funding: Conflicts of interest in healthcare, academics, public relations and journalism
- Mayo Clinic woos reporters with fellowship offer
- New York Times’s blog post on transcendental meditation plagued with problems
- How a reporter’s story got in the way of critical analysis in the Washington Post
- Journalists reporting on themselves in health care stories: is this narcissism?
- First person health care stories not always narcissism – and can be a public service
TV NEWS DOCTORS
- Doctors as journalists walk a fine line ethically. Did Fox News’ Dr. Manny Martinez cross it?
- Also see: Our in-depth coverage of TV news doctors
SCRUTINIZING NEWS RELEASES
3. Case studies: How we did it
Where’s the data?
Exposing bad university/industry science: In early 2016, we reviewed a news release from the University of Maryland that touted the results of a study showing that a brand of chocolate milk helped football players with concussions. But the release had no link to the study–so we persisted and ask the university for the study via direct contact, and a blog post. They stonewalled, so we wrote about that, too. We soon learned the university was launching an internal inquiry, but then more silence followed, so we explained how this tactic wasn’t good PR. Pursuing a different tack, we asked the school district involved with the study if students gave consent for the mysterious study, and got murky answers. Not long after, the university released its internal review findings, validating many of the concerns that we voiced in our review of the UMD news release and blog coverage about this study. This led to major changes to the university’s research agreements with private entities, and, proudly, the university’s internal investigators credited journalists with spotting that something was amiss.
Exposing hype in news releases: In 2015, the National Institutes of Health issued a news release with a big announcement about “landmark” results for what’s known as the SPRINT (Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial) study. But as we pointed out in our review: The release contained nary a single statistic from the study or a number related to what the researchers found. We also did a deeper analysis of why this missing data is so important. When the study findings were finally publishable and reviewable by doctors and journalists, we sought to find out: Did the published SPRINT study results live up to premature NIH news release hype? And as the news media covered the findings, we looked at those headlines, too, and what was lacking. Nearly a year later, we followed up with the news that key details about the study were still dribbling out that impact how cardiologists view the findings–and exemplify why we all need to slow down when reporting on exciting but hardly verified study findings.
Grappling with a medical topic or writing pitfall you’d like us to tackle? Contact us.