Who will warn us when the watch dog remains silent? Gary Schwitzer, founder of HealthNewsReview.org, retires

By the team of medien-doktor.de

Last week Gary Schwitzer, founder of HealthNewsReview.org, announced that he will retire after a 45-year career in health care journalism. Regrettably, this also means that HealthNewsReview.org will cease publication at the end of the year. Starting in April 2006, this flagship project’s growing team of doctors and journalists has constantly provided critical examination of the medical and health reporting of major U.S. news outlets – and since 2015 of the proliferating medical public relations industry as well. HealthNewsReview.org has educated journalists and the general public for more than 12 years about the flaws and fewer bright spots they saw, never shy to call shoddy research and bad reporting by their names, acting as a watch dog for health care journalism.

The work of Gary and his team was inspired by projects in Australia and Canada called Media-Doctor and has itself inspired other projects around the world, including our own, medien-doktor.de. In full operation since 2010 and with initial personal support by Gary, we have organized a “journalistic peer review process” for German language media applying a set of criteria similar to the one used at HealthNewsReview.org, which we adapted and extended. In 2013 we started Medien-Doktor PR Watch and developed Medien-Doktor Umwelt with a completely new set of criteria for environmental reporting, but with the same intention shared by us and Gary Schwitzer, that is to inform and improve the public dialogue about (science) journalism.

But even a skilled team of independent editors and a clear focus on the public good did not save HealthNewsReview.org from an inevitable truth: Every funding comes to an end. From our own undertakings we know how difficult and demanding it is to find funders who are willing to give money for a project already running, even if its value for society is unquestionable. In the case of HealthNewsReview.org this means that one vigilant watch dog will stop barking soon. At a time, when the health care industry is a leading economic sector in industrialized countries while news organizations struggle to remain profitable, and fighting fake news of all sorts, an independent institution like the one Gary Schwitzer has built appears more necessary than ever.

One way to further pursue this goal might be to integrate the “journalistic peer review” into scientific projects. That is the track medien-doktor.de is following with our MEDIATE project and another project funded by the Thyssen-Stiftung that has just recently started. Within MEDIATE we are looking deeper into the reporting about medical diagnostic tests, a field where recent innovations like noninvasive prenatal and DNA genetic testing have raised medical as well as ethical questions. We will bring together journalists and doctors to discuss and analyze the reporting about these tests in-depth and to come forward with recommendations for better reporting.

The other project aims at developing quality criteria for environmental journalism from media users’ perspectives. Both projects will not allow for a comprehensive review of neither current health care nor environmental reporting, but rather deliver a selective snapshot, hopefully alerting us and others to problematic areas in science journalism. More importantly, by adding those new angles to our reviews we are optimistic to further improve the discourse about the quality of health care and environmental journalism.

While we keep on working we will miss HealthNewsReview.org. Thank you Gary Schwitzer for your bold inspiration and generous support!