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Nov 22, 2013 · Leave a Reply

Seeking integrity, not absolute truth, in medical journalism

By Hoyt Finnamore @HoytFinnamore

newspapersAs editor of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Mayo Clinic's William Lanier, M.D., knows about the importance of accuracy in medical journalism. He also knows what can happen when journalists fall short of that and publish less-than-accurate medical findings. He spoke to a group of folks particularly keen on those subjects -- journalism students and medical professionals -- earlier this month at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

As reported in the school's student-run paper, the Downtown Devil, which apparently contains "News for the Urban Sun Devil" (our new favorite tagline), Dr. Lanier spoke about the process of writing, editing and producing a top medical journal like Mayo Clinic Proceedings. He also offered the budding journalists advice for how they can better "navigate the field of medical journalism" while taking into account the sometimes "skewed perception" the general public can have about medical reporting.

"The public looks to science today to determine truth, but science can't determine truth," Dr. Lanier told his audience. "Integrity in science is what we're after, not truth in science."

Dr. Lanier says the fact that medical findings are "constantly evolving" means that "what was published one year can just as easily be refuted in a new finding the next year." But while Dr. Lanier says he believes misleading medical coverage in the media and misunderstanding of medical information by the public will continue to be "a persistent problem," he tells us that there's still plenty that can be done to help readers better decipher scientific fact and fiction.

"Some of the potential problems in medical reporting can be overcome if those creating and delivering information -- namely the scientists, physicians, journals, and journalists -- work together to not just deliver information, but also provide an element of teaching in the reporting," he says. "Clarity of reporting," Dr. Lanier says, can be "enhanced if scientists, physicians and journals work more closely with journalists to create accurate stories," and if journalists are made to feel "more comfortable asking content experts to help ensure the accuracy and clarity of their final reports."

To help ensure integrity at Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Dr. Lanier says he and the editorial staff put every submission they receive through "an extremely stringent peer-review session." The process is so stringent, in fact, that Dr. Lanier says they only publish about "20 percent" of what comes in. (Kind of like us with Cory.)

Check the proceedings for yourself at mayoclinicproceedings.org, and then balance our reporting by sharing your thoughts below.

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