Resources for Evaluating Health News

By Rachel Walden — July 15, 2009

As a medical librarian by day, I spend lots of time evaluating health information. Through my work,  I’ve learned that the media does not always cover medical “breakthroughs” and study findings accurately or clearly.  Luckily, there are several resources available that can help correct this problem.

One example is Health News Review, which provides ratings and critiques of medical reporting. Media reports are evaluated by a number of criteria, such as whether they review the evidence, discuss potential harms, quantify potential benefits, compare with existing alternatives, or appear to rely solely on a news release. The site also provides a toolkit for journalists to help improve their reporting. It’s also a useful read for others wanting to understand the important issues and potential pitfalls of medical reports in the news.

Similarly, NHS Choices – Behind the Headlines from the National Health Service in the UK provides evaluations and summaries of health-related stories in the news, including the type of and citation for the study a story is based on, what the existing research says, and the implications of the finding being reported. Media Doctor Canada and Media Doctor Australia are similar services that may be of interest to international readers.

Relatedly, I recently learned that the National Press Foundation is offering a four-day “fellowship on cancer issues” for selected U.S. journalists which will provide an “in-depth look at cancer, current research, and controversies related to screening and treatment.” While many journalists covering medical topics could probably use some continuing education on finding and interpreting the evidence, this session is unfortunately underwritten by Pfizer – a pharmaceutical company which makes money by promoting and selling its treatment and screening products.

If you have access to the journal BMJ, there’s a great article, Who’s Watching the Watchdogs, which looks at exactly this type of conflict of interest in industry sponsorship of medical journalism training. I may be a bit biased toward librarians, but I’d personally much rather see journalists build their knowledge through less biased information sources, such as this fellowship training opportunity being offered by the Association of Health Care Journalists with the National Library of Medicine.

[Hat tip to David Rothman, a fellow library geek, for his post pointing to some of these resources.]

4 responses to “Resources for Evaluating Health News”

  1. Rachel, may I use this (with a proper attribution, of course!) in the LIS 2586 class next fall, please? It would be a great addition to the “paper trail” assignment….

    peace, Ellen

  2. It was also just announced yesterday that the first class of fellows have been announced for a National Library of Medicine partnership with the Association of Health Care Journalists –

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