I just read an “article” (and I use that term rather loosely) this morning on msnbc.com. It was about how the previous reports of a Mexican woman claiming to be pregnant with 9 babies weren’t entirely true. How untrue? Well, turns out she wasn’t even pregnant.
Yes, you read that correctly. In their haste to report on such a fantastical story, msnbc.com and several other major media outlets forgot a little thing called fact checking. (Just so you know, if a reporter had asked me to comment on the piece before they went to press, I’d have said, “No fucking way. Prove it.”).
So, what about things that are slightly harder to check than GESTATING NINE BABIES? If the media can’t get the simple facts straight about a woman who claims to be a nonomom, how accurate can they be about real health information? Not so good, it turns out. In one study of pediatric health information only 55% of news sites had medically accurate content. And if you’re a frequent reader of this blog, you’ll know I post often about the medical misinformation reported by the media, from G-spots to abortion.
So why do news sites have such a hard time with accurate health content? I suspect it’s a combination of the following:
- Sloppy reporting. Not fact checking the source, not getting verification from an actual medical expert in the specific area, or using a bad article or a case report as the basis for the article.
- The desperation for eye grabbing headlines (OMG, nine babies!)
- Pandering to inaccurate medical hot buttons, like anti-vaccine stories, because it drives traffic (you’ll notice Huffington Post didn’t win the Pulitzer for their *cough* health reporting)
- Not removing out of date pieces. What what was standard of care in 2003 might now, in the light of new studies, actually be poor advice. Government web sites circumvent this problem as these site are curated by medical librarians, who fact check, cross-reference, and cull out of date information.
Some news media get it right. When I submitted an opinion piece to USA Today, before it was even accepted for publication, not only did I have to provide medical articles to support every fact I discussed, but I had to give the phone number of the doctor I quoted so the fact-checker could call and independently verify. I’ve also had many similar positive experiences with Cosmopolitan and Glamour magazine where I’ve been contacted by a fact checker to not only make sure I’ve been quoted correctly, but to also review the article for accuracy. Although, I’m disheartened to report in one instance when I disagreed with a claim made by a reporter the magazine simply removed my name as a source and ran the article with the false, but attention grabbing information intact instead of making the necessary, but less titillating changes.
Makes me wonder if the worth of an online health reporter to a news agency is not in the accuracy of their content or the societal value of their information, but rather the clicks garnered by salacious headlines.