Are Health Journalists Leading Separate Lives at the Same Media Outlet?

Published on
March 2, 2011

Image removed.Health reporters got an unusual amount of mileage out of a study that said that its chief finding was "of unknown clinical significance." And when these same reporters put on their blogging hats, they went off-road entirely.

As a side gig, I regularly review stories for Health News Review. The site's publisher, Gary Schwitzer, wrote about the way reporters who wrote about a study of cell phones and brain activity blended peer-reviewed science and scientific speculation to make therapeutic claims.

What the coverage of the story crystalized for me was how different the tone and content can be in stories by the same author in side-by-side web formats. A reporter at a traditional hard news outlet such as the Los Angeles Times or The Wall Street Journal will have a much more straightforward take on a topic if it runs under the umbrella of the newspaper than they will on the same outlet's blog. This seems odd, given that most readers are reading the stories online, where the distinction is invisible.

It's not a case of right or wrong. It's just an interesting phenomenon that has come from, it seems, the pressure to write with a much looser, more provocative style for a blog.

I'm a perfect example. I write with much more opinion and edge than I ever have for a newspaper. I was interviewed this week for a show on KQED in San Francisco, and the host asked me if people are put off by the name of one of my most popular features, "Doctors Behaving Badly." When I wrote something similar for the Orange County Register, we had a much tamer title: "Doctor Watch."At the same time, I know that readers looking at my coverage over the years make no distinction between what I did for the Los Angeles Times and what I am doing now.

Which brings me back to the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal.

On the same topic – a small study that indicated cellphone use may activate certain regions of the brain – reporters at each outlet wrote very different pieces for the newspaper itself and for the paper's blog. Let's take the Journal first.

The Journal story was straightforward and comprehensively explained the study. Its headline was one of the most basic headlines of any story on the topic: "Brain reacts to cellphones." The rest of the story was great. Unlike much of the competition, the story includeda crucial piece of context. It said that the changes found in the brain were akin to what are found when people speak, meaning that they predate the invention of the cellphone or any electronic device.

The blog item that linked to the story – written by the same author – had a very different headline: "Could cell phones be used to treat depression?" This is the type of thing someone might tweet, and no one would think twice. But headlines from major news outlets still have power to drive other coverage and to guide people's decision-making. This is why Gary wrote his piece putting the story in his Question Mark Health News Hall of Shame. Readers who actually read through the entire post would find that the question mark was at least rooted in some science. The study's lead author, Nora Volkow, made the link, not the writer.

There are already brain stimulation techniques for depression, like electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, aka shock therapy) and transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS.  The amount of additional brain activity induced by cell phones - about 7% to 8% - is on par with the amount of increased brain activity currently induced by TMS, according to Volkow. So perhaps one day cell phones could be hand-held brain stimulation devices, she says.

The Los Angeles Times followed a similar pattern. Straightforward story and headline: "Radiation from cellphone antenna boosts brain activity, study finds." Note that "boosts" may be interpreted as a positive effect by some readers, whereas the verb "reacts" from the Journal is more neutral.

Like the Journal story, the Times story does some great things. It was one of the few stories that made the point that different cell phones have different designs, and that this one – with the antenna in the mouthpiece – might affect brains differently than other phones. This may be a nuance, but it is an important nuance. Stories last week about a study showing that certain cars were more likely to rapidly accelerate pointed out the maker of the cars (Toyota) and noted that there are specific design problems (like faulty floor mats) that make rapid acceleration more likely.

But despite the story's strengths and even tone, the Times' blog post went the opposite direction of the Journal with a narrative that created what might be called a "quilt of fear," pieced together with disparate studies stitched together by a single source: Cellphones stimulate our cells, but is that a bad thing? Michael Hansen, staff scientist from Consumers Union, an organization I quite admire, managed to pull together pieces of science from all over the literature to portray cell phones as potentially carcinogenic, even though the study at hand offered no evidence of a cancer link:

Hansen cites a paper published last year that found that cellphone use increased the rate of saliva production in the parotid glands (the ones closest to the cheek) of subjects. Put that finding together with a pair of Israeli studies suggesting a link between heavy Israeli cellphone use and a rise in parotid gland tumors in that country, and Hansen says, you should have concerns.

Does increased salivation lead to cancer? If so, we better shut down all the barbecue joints and taco stands that are in the same strip malls as the cell phone stores.

Here's an easy prediction. By 2015, there will be no more newspaper blogs, although newspapers and newsprint will still exist. Stories will have question mark headlines and provocative comments from advocacy organizations because that is where journalism is moving. As long as the many great reporters at these outlets are allowed the time and the freedom to continue to choose the right stories to cover and to ask tough questions of multiple sources, I think the sky won't fall. In both of these cases, had the blog post information been folded into the body of the main stories, it would have only made them a more entertaining and engaging read, even if the blog fodder added little to our understanding of the actual science.

Photo credit: Okko Pyykkö via Flickr