Web Site Reviews, Rates Health Care Journalism

Newspaper and magazine health coverage will be reviewed online at a new Web site beginning Monday.

Access to the site and its findings, http://www.HealthNewsReview.org, is free and open to consumers. It was created by University of Minnesota journalism professor Gary Schwitzer, who fashioned the site after similar efforts in Australia and Canada.

"For consumers, we hope it will help them improve their critical thinking about claims in health care," said Schwitzer, who directs a graduate program in health care journalism.

The reviewers will monitor top newspapers, magazines and other media outlets, including The Associated Press, and rate their coverage of health issues. Articles will be rated on a scale of one to five stars, and the reviewers also will post comments.

While Schwitzer says he thinks the quality of health care journalism is improving, it still sometimes falls short. Stories sometimes fail to spell out such things as the availability of a new treatment or the strength of the evidence behind a new study, he said.

A team of 20 reviewers from universities and clinics across the country will write the critiques.

The site could be "very helpful" in improving the information the public receives on developments in health and medicine, said Cristine Russell, a former Washington Post health reporter who is now a journalism fellow at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

And it could encourage journalists to do a better job and be more skeptical about the reliability of information that comes to them, she said.

A preview of the site included a review of a March 13 Washington Post article about studies showing that B vitamins don't cut the risk for heart attacks or strokes.

Reviewers gave the article four stars, saying it "was factually correct" but "missed a golden opportunity to educate consumers about the difference between a disease outcome and a surrogate marker of the disease."

Russell said the critics should keep in mind these are news stories, not peer-reviewed articles for medical journals, and "I do think they have to be careful not to fall into medical or health jargon or they are going to lose their audience."

She said the number of health care professionals on the panel might result in unrealistic expectations about how much a news story can accomplish, and she hopes the site doesn't "end up being another media-bashing exercise."

The Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making, a nonprofit that helps patients choose treatments for various medical conditions, is a partner in the project.