Merriam Webster, The Who, and Hacking Churnalism

Today we’re channeling The Who, Merriam Webster and one of my longtime favorite fellow patient empowerment buddies, Gary Schwitzer, who reminds me at least weekly why we just can’t trust the media without very careful review.

As follows:

I love a new word. When this one appeared in my inbox last week, I wanted to share it with you because it’s an important concept for advocates and patients alike.

Today’s new word is: Churnalism.(Take that Merriam Webster!) Churnalism is the product of lazy reporters and journalists who, without further investigation or review, simply reprint (or broadcast) a submitted press release or video roll from companies looking to profit, like pharmaceutical companies or medical device makers, or others looking for donations or grants (called “soft money”) like university or non-profit research centers, or anyone else who might make money by getting their information shared.

I encountered that new word churnalism in this headline, found in Gary’s Health News Review (HNR) newsletter:

Chicago Tribune repost of news release sets new low for churnalism

Here’s the problem Gary and his team at Health News Review address: “News” is published and broadcast every day that makes its readers and listeners sit up and take notice – and is usually at least partially wrong or incomplete, and therefore misleading.

Health News Review does just what its name suggests. They review that health news: published stories and articles (text and video) produced by mainstream media and those press release submitters, and they rate them according to a list of criteria which, when met, make a story solid, objective news — information that can be trusted. The best a story can be rated is 5 stars. The worst is zero.

Now, it strikes me that churnalism by itself is already the definition of LOW, so to say the repost by the Chicago Tribune was the lowest of low – well – I had to check it out. On the HNR scale – it hit that goose egg, that zero. Ouch.

We have all fallen victim to this deception. We read or hear things we want to believe! We read or hear things that strike fear! But so often we aren’t getting the real truth.

Here are some sample headlines with their ratings:

Five headlines. All very intentional – and all embraced by their readers who have not delved further into the information presented. But if some of them are believed, patients can be steered in a wrong, and possibly dangerous, direction.

So what does this have to do with patient advocates? Once again – the patient-clients who hire us just don’t know what they don’t know – YDKWYDK. When they read any of those headlines, they will read them with the same regard, never questioning their veracity. Without understanding the necessity of reading or listening between the lines of the too-often-churnalized news they see or hear, they are believing and basing choices based on official-sounding, published bull-pooky.

If Time and the Chicago Tribune are so willing to deceive us, then – well – who CAN we trust?

So – a few suggestions for smart advocates:

  1. Sign up immediately to receive the Health News Review newsletter. (scroll to the bottom of the page to find the newsletter signup form). Let it help you keep abreast of what’s real and what’s churnalized in the world of medical research and uncover – ahem – FACTs that might not really be facts.
  2. Become generally knowledgeable about the 10 criteria that are applied to the stories and releases that HNR reviews. These criteria can help you assess the stories you read and hear every day. After awhile you will find yourself reading everything with a far more critical eye – one that will serve you well both personally and in your work.
  3. As you acquire clients with certain symptoms, diagnoses or treatments, do a quick search at HNR to see what’s being written about current research and related news. Then share links, or printouts, with your clients to show them that you stay current – and encourage them to do so, too.
  4. If you speak to groups, or use an email newsletter in your marketing, why not pull some of your content from the HNR reviews? Don’t copy them, of course. Condense and, most importantly, link to the content on the HNR site. That way you are serving your clientele without crossing the line into copyright violations.

You may be able to think of even more ways the reviews at HNR can serve you and your clients. If you have a mind to do so, you can donate to Gary’s work, too.

So all the while I’ve been writing this post, I’ve been humming a very well-known song by The Who (well, at least for those of us over a certain age!)… can you tell which one? (OK – yes – I see the title is printed on the photo – so click that arrow in the middle – and turn it up!)



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