“So while some journalists are glued to coverage of these meetings, publishing daily for general news audiences that may not understand the nuances of the limitations of drawing conclusions from talks presented at scientific meetings, most of this stuff isn’t even published in the medical literature for at least 5 years - if ever!” Schwitzer wrote on his blog at Health News Review. “Why does this matter? Such news coverage creates a rose-colored view of progress in research. It may not be inaccurate but it most certainly misleads and lacks important context if it doesn’t present caveats about the limitations.”

Schwitzer also reminded his readers of a 2002 paper published in The Journal of the American Medical Association titled, “Media Coverage of Scientific Meetings—Too Much, Too Soon?” which concluded:

Results are frequently presented to the public as scientifically sound evidence rather than as preliminary findings with still uncertain validity. With some effort on the part of meeting organizers, journalists, and scientists, it will be possible to better serve the public.

Along the same lines, The Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Paul Raeburn suggested that Health News Review’s guidelines should inform more coverage in general. “I’m beginning to think that Schwitzer’s criteria for judging stories ought to be printed on wallet cards for reporters, like Miranda warnings, to remind them what questions to ask,” he wrote. “I could use one of those myself.”

It’s a great idea, but unfortunately one that may never come to pass. According to Schwitzer, Health News Review took a 30-percent budget cut this year from the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation, which has been the website’s sole source of support for the last seven years, and he worries that funding may dry up entirely by July.

Given Health News Review’s substantial contributions to the field of media criticism, its closing would be a tragedy—and one way to ensure that coverage of scientific meetings, like the AHA’s conference, never gets any better.

 

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.