Finding the best balance in health reporting

Starting with the first article they write, journalists learn to seek balance, objectivity and facts in their reporting. Balance often is translated into giving various viewpoints equal weight in an article.Scale

But do journalists always have to give equal weight to discordant opinions
on a subject even when there is no/minuscule scientific credibility for

I’ve been wondering lately if that traditional idea of balance best serves the public, or would journalists better serve the public by weighting their reports based on the credibility of the research available?

Examples of where this could be important that easily come to mind are stories on the vaccine-autism connection and water fluoridation.

The scientific community doesn’t take seriously the theory that vaccines cause
autism — other than the fact that parents refusing to
vaccinate their children threatens the public’s health. So when
writing about this issue, should a journalist represent an
anti-vaccination advocate as a source as equally credible as a
vaccination expert? In other words, should Jenny McCarthy’s opinion that a
vaccine caused autism in her son be taken as seriously as a vaccination

Take another case: community water fluoridation. It is widely accepted by public health
professionals to be the most cost-effective way to keep people’s teeth
healthy. It’s particularly important in low-income communities where
children have poor access to dental care. When covering a community
debate on water fluoridation, should a journalist devote equal space to
the anti-fluoridation activists and public health folks?

I posed these questions to Gary Schwitzer, a health journalism professor at the University of Minnesota School who publishes HealthNewsReview.org.

Here’s what he said.

"This is a question that has bugged me for a long time. And I hear more health care journalists chafing at the "equal weight" requirement that some editors impose on them in such "he said/she said" health, medical or science stories.

I do not think that we are living up to our duties of responsible reporting when we include perspectives — or balance the weight of perspectives — simply because another perspective exists. With complex medical science topics, we need to be an intelligent filter for readers and viewers. First of all we need to be smart enough to be able to evaluate the quality of the evidence. But, second, when we do so and the evidence gives a very clear picture we should say so. You can nod in the direction of other perspectives but equal time and space seems ludicrous in some stories.

Two tenets of the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Statement of Principles (disclosure:  I was the primary author) seem to apply to this question:

  1. Consider public interest the primary criterion when choosing which stories to report.
  2. Distinguish between advocacy and reporting. — There are many sides in a health care story. It is not the job of the journalist to take sides, but to present an accurate, balanced and complete report.

As I think about your question, the public interest is not served by a story that paints a picture of equipoise for the evidence behind conflicting theories when it really doesn’t exist. Yet, this line must be walked carefully.

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5 replies »

  1. Medical reporting is not easy – there are way too many variables that do not fit into a printed story or a 2-minute video package. As a physician and journalist at KCOY TV (CBS), I feel my only obligation to viewers is to present accurate information that can assist them in making decisions for themselves. No one benefits from a headline like “Computers Cause Cancer” without providing perspective and some opposition from credible sources.
    It is the journalist’s responsibility to determine which sources have credibility – they do not have to be given equal time. If every major scientific organization on Earth believes there is no current evidence that autism is caused by vaccines, but Jenny McCarthy conducts her own research (with n=1) and reaches a different conclusion, that’s fine. Let the viewers make up their minds.
    I always try to explain the limits of research and the concept of outliers and outright error. But as you expect, these can be difficult concepts for non-thinkers to grasp.
    Take care.

  2. This entire discussion takes the wrong approach, beginning with Sarah Arnquist’s two examples. Neither the vaccine-autism question nor the fluoridation question has been answered with any degree of certainty.
    Health journalists don’t have to give equal weight to both sides of a medical controversy. But, they must never make up their minds based on celebrity science, which is exactly what Ms. Arnquist has done. Until she looks at facts and assesses the independence of the researchers presenting them, she should not take sides. This type of retched journalism is a root cause of our millions of unhealthy citizens.
    The New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, and The Journal of Clinical Microbiology all have no problem printing garbage research. And, there are 1000s of “scientists” ready smirk and nod their heads in agreement. As only one example, how wrong and for how long were these journals about “stress-caused ulcers” when they were H. pylori infections all along?

  3. I think many health journalists take the he said/she said approach for two reasons: 1.) because it’s much easier to write a story when you don’t have to think critically about the information, and 2.) because no one will yell at them if they are perceived as “even-handed.”