Can Journalists Do Better?


That's what the hosts of the MIT Medical Evidence Boot Camp have asked me to talk about this morning.

Details on the boot camp at:


question-- have such boot camps improved journalism and/or consumer education or confidence levels? is there evidence? I'm wondering whether they've made things worse by encouraging reporters to publicize more ambiguous areas and thereby spread confusion. the whole dynamic of giving consumers a broader range of choices is creating a new set of problems. what I'm wondering here is whether having more sophisticated journalists is creating an environment where we have more confused journalistic consumers. and if so, does that suggest why the journalism business is declining (increasingly it provides news you can't use) while the public's health isn't necessarily improving (as in "well, I was going to get a mammogram, but now maybe I shouldn't..."

It would be difficult to prove the impact that such boot camps have had in a systematic way.

But having spoken with many people who have attended them, I can only tell you that attendees find them valuable and believe they are much better prepared to cover medical research stories based on what they learned in the boot camps.

I can't envision any scenario under which such training opportunities have "made things worse" as you suggest. These boot camps train journalists in how to evaluate the evidence. If journalists, in turn, can then convey some of those evaluative skills to readers/viewers/consumers, it should help resolve confusion, not contribute to it.

well, for those of us in the evidence-based world, it seems like a reasonable question to ask. those of us trained as journalists tend to believe that if you give folks good information, they'll find their way, but there's not a lot of evidence on that one either. and, frankly, we're both parties at interest in this one because we have an instinctive bias against any hypothesis that less information would be better.

on other hand, there seems to evidence in the world of retirement savings and financial services, often cited by the nudge people, that more information lead to more choices that don't yield better outcomes. rather they lead to paralysis and dependence on default choices. i personally am unconvinced that growing public debate about mammograms, statins and PSA tests has led to better decisions or that even greater discussion would improve things.

consider this. in the old days, you could figure out whether you were overweight by measuring your height and checking a chart from researchers as insurers. gradually the chart grew from two choices (gender) to six (small, medium and large boned). then we decided that was inadequate and went to bmi measurements which require base camp attendance to compute. meanwhile, people keep getting fatter and those who care can cite a growing body of evidence to prove that, in their particular case, there's no health risk involved. I guess you could call that progress. I'm not totally convinced.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Gary Schwitzer published on December 4, 2009 7:04 AM.

Bioethics expert criticizes UMN conflict of interest plan was the previous entry in this blog.

Another Minnesota bioethics expert speaks out against UMN conflict of interest plan is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.



Wikio - Top of the Blogs - Health

Add to Technorati Favorites