Drinking from the Fire Hose

Portrait: Gary Schwitzer. These days, medical information and health news coverage is everywhere—online, on television, on magazine covers. But are we parched in the deluge? Learn more

by Danny LaChance

In the sentimental 1980s flick Beaches, Barbara Hershey plays a character who learns she has cardiomyopathy. She goes to a university library and, hunched over a hardwood table under the dusty light of a green desk lamp, flips through the pages of a medical textbook, trying to find out what, if anything, she can do.

She can't Google treatment options or read online bulletin boards filled with multiple perspectives and disagreements over the limits of medical knowledge. There are no WebMD.coms with articles about her ailment, no online newspaper archives that might contain research reports related to the disease.

With the loss of gatekeepers—those charged with filtering, fact checking, and framing the information that people encounter—we enjoy unparalleled access to the most obscure knowledge, to breaking medical news, to unconventional points of view. Such access offers unparalleled opportunities—the chance to stumble upon a condition unknown to your doctor or to gather the latest treatment options in just a few keystrokes.

But it also comes with new risks. When anyone can produce and consume medical knowledge without the mediation of professionals, it becomes increasingly likely that the information we encounter will be inaccurate, misinterpreted, or stripped of its context in ways that can hurt more than help us.

“We are blessed by many information tools and outlets, but it can be like trying to get a drink from a fire hose," says Gary Schwitzer, an associate professor of journalism and mass communication. “There is so much that comes with such force and such overwhelming volume, the sources of which aren't always immediately clear."

As the stream of medical knowledge becomes a deluge, Schwitzer is one of several CLA researchers whose work is helping us learn, in essence, how to have our fire hose—and drink from it, too.



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This page contains a single entry by CLA Reach Magazine published on April 4, 2008 2:23 PM.

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