Health News Watchdog Takes on News Releases

Amy Snow Landa / July 2, 2015

If you’re a close follower of health care reporting, you may already know about a website called Health News Review, which has published nearly 2,000 reviews of health news stories since 2006.

The site doesn’t review the whole range of health-related news stories – only those that include a “claim of efficacy” about a particular treatment, test, product or procedure. In one example, the website recently reviewed a FOX News story touting the benefits of “cancer-fighting spices” and found it to be “nonsense masquerading as news.” But another recently published review praised a Wall Street Journal story about a new study on the use of whole-brain radiation to treat cancer, which it said did “a good job of explaining the relevAmy croppedant treatments and placing the work in context.”

The site’s team of independent expert reviewers evaluate stories using a set of criteria that include:

  • Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?
  • Does it adequately explain the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?
  • Does it adequately explain the harms?

For nearly a decade, the website’s reviews have been closely followed by health care reporters and editors in the U.S. as well as abroad. But this year brought a new wrinkle when the site expanded its reviews to include news releases.

This new level of attention to news releases gives communications and PR professionals an additional reason to tune in to Health News Review, if they haven’t already.

The decision to turn the spotlight on news releases stems from the conviction that problems in health news stories can often be traced to the original news release. As the site’s founder and publisher, Gary Schwitzer, stated in a blog headline, “News releases can lead media like sheep – hiding key problems.”

Some PR and communications professionals might take issue with some of the statements and judgments on the site.

Certainly the reviews can be harsh. The first published review of a news release examined a release from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health and called it “misleading to the point of deception.”

Like it or not, PR pros need to be aware that news releases about health and the life sciences now face a new source of scrutiny. But those who take the time to read these reviews consistently can probably learn a lot from them.

Here at The Fearey Group, we constantly strive to get better at what we do, and that requires staying current on best practices and paying attention to thoughtful critique. From our vantage point, Health News Review has just become an even more valuable resource in that regard.

Disclosure: Amy worked for Health News Review from 2006 to 2008, when she was a graduate student in the Health Journalism M.A. program at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism & Mass Communication.