The return of HealthNewsReview.org

Unique journalism watchdog will once again provide evaluations of healthcare coverage

A unique health journalism watchdog will resume posting new articles next month, after a nearly 18-month hiatus. HealthNewsReview.org, run by University of Minnesota professor and former CNN journalist Gary Schwitzer, has secured a $1.3 million, two-year grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The website will take up residence within a new institute, provisionally called the Center for Health Care & Media, at the university’s School of Public Health.

Between 2006 and 2013, HealthNewsReview published more than 1,800 story reviews—systematic evaluations of media coverage by a team of reviewers, including journalists and medical professionals. Among other criteria, reviewers examined whether a story adequately discussed a medical intervention’s costs, quantified harm and benefits, and compared the intervention with existing procedures—and they were tough critics. Targets included most of the nation’s top-10 circulation papers, plus CNN, MSNBC, NPR, Time, Newsweek, wire services, and others.

The approach was unique, and the service sorely needed, said Christie Aschwanden, lead science writer for FiveThirtyEight and a health columnist for The Washington Post. “There’s a lot of lousy reporting out there, and it’s really important to have some oversight… I have pointed to it before, when I’m working on a magazine story where editors were pushing to take the story further than the data showed, and it’s nice to be able to say, ‘Not only is that not good journalism, but we’re going to get reamed on this site.’”

Soon, Aschwanden will have that opportunity again. New reviews—the site’s “bread and butter,” as Schwitzer describes it—will start appearing come January, and he’ll resurrect a weekly digest of the site’s stories, which currently has between 2,000 and 3,000 subscribers.

And when the fully revamped HealthNewsReview site launches in March or April, Schwitzer and his team will apply the same review methodology to a whole different class of content: health-related press releases.

HealthNewsReview was supported for eight years by the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation, and in that time the site won a Knight-Batten Award for innovation in journalism and a Mirror Award from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. In 2010 Schwitzer quit his tenured faculty position to devote more time to the project, which he describes as “my labor of love, the most important thing I have ever worked on.”

But when the money dried up in July 2013, Schwitzer had to suspend the reviews, although the site remained active and he kept writing regular blog posts. After trying “many” journalism and health policy foundations for new funding, he almost gave up. His wasn’t the only such site to run into difficulty. The similar projects Media Doctor Canada and Media Doctor Australia—the site that inspired his work— both had to shut down. Another one in Hong Kong appears suspended, although projects are starting up or going strong in Germany and Austria.

With the new funding, HealthNewsReview has for the first time hired a full-time managing editor, Maine-based Kevin Lomangino, who will work with two part-time associate editors. These hires will free Schwitzer to spend time on the blog, journalist training, and development. He aims to lead workshops in regions around the US, about once a quarter.

Schwitzer will have about 30 contributors when the site launches, including journalists Andrew Holtz, Sally James, Bill Heisel, and Trudy Lieberman (a longtime CJR contributor), as well as communications scholars, health professionals, and University of Minnesota graduate students. As before, the roster will also include several breast cancer patients who have been trained in evidence evaluation by the National Breast Cancer Coalition, with Schwitzer’s help.

The inclusion of these citizen-journalists points to what ultimately drives Schwitzer.

“Our efforts are all aimed at increasing critical thinking and analytical skills by Joe Blow and the public,” he says. “We’re always called a journalism watchdog, but to me it’s much more than that. It’s a healthcare reform initiative… We have to improve the public dialogue, which right now is abysmal.”

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Tamar Wilner is a Dallas-based freelance journalist and researcher who writes about misinformation, fact-checking, science communication, and all things media. She tweets at @tamarwilner.