Health churnalism: Students unravel the hype and laziness in health research reporting
Faculty of Education and Arts
School of Communications and Arts
Journalists are often accused of hyping medical findings by spending too little time reading and understanding the research they report and by ‘spinning’ results. But in recent years, criticism has also been made of those science news websites that predominantly run press releases, for doing their fair share of hyping, as well as the embargo system that constructs an artificial reporting environment. It was against this backdrop that an assessment was devised for health journalism students that encouraged them to question the validity of medical research news reports by investigating the reporting process. Students in Australia’s only Health Journalism unit were tasked with finding medical research stories in newspapers and tracing their origin, from article, back to press release to the original research. Time and again, students found little difference between published stories and press releases, with inaccuracy and spin compounded by mass publication. They also found little evidence that journalists routinely read the research they reported. This task uncovered numerous and sometimes egregious examples of health ‘churnalism’, in which reporters relied almost entirely on press releases about research, rather than the original studies. It also proved a valuable news literacy exercise for students who were strongly critical of the shortcuts in reporting they identified. While the genre of health research is specific, the lessons learned regarding the dangers and temptation of churnalism are applicable across journalism units.