Why I Won’t Blog for U.S. News and World Report

Editor’s note: It’s an honor to host the following guest post on the perils of science blogging in the modern media age by my distinguished colleague Mary Knudson. Mary is my co-editor for the book, A Field Guide for Science Writers, worked for 17 years as a medical writer for The Baltimore Sun and currently teaches science and medical writing at Johns Hopkins University. As noted in the post below, she is also author of the highly praised book, Living Well with Heart Failure.

When U.S. News and World Report invited me to write a weekly blog on heart failure and other heart issues at its website, I looked forward to building a following of people with heart failure and their families and other members of the public and perhaps some health professionals interested in this growing health problem. My first blog post and an accompanying sidebar on what the blog would be about were ready to go public at usnews.com at 9 a.m. on September 23.

Shortly before that time, by clicking on the titles of the two posts which I found listed on the right side of the page under “recent posts”, I could see the first third of the blog post and sidebar. Surprised to see a number of highlighted words in the text of both the story and sidebar, I hovered over them and was shocked to see what jumped out. First was the picture of a man’s face and the message with it told me to support him for senator. Next out came an ad for baby lotion for diaper rash. And then springing from a word in my story on heart failure was a direct link to a website that sells genetic tests. Whoa! I’m sending my readers to a company that sells genetic tests? A journalist could write a story warning consumers to beware of genetic tests because of their limitations and shortcomings. These links from my story to commercial products were unacceptable to me. I couldn’t have ads jumping out of the words of my blog post. I consider that U.S. News, a well-known weekly news magazine, has crossed the line that is supposed to separate advertising from news and editorial content. I told the magazine this and said not to publish my blog with ads popping out of it. This separation of advertising and editorial content is a long-held tenet of journalism.

I discovered that I had no control over what words in my blog post would trigger sending readers to other sites or what sites they were sent to. I only had access to the first third of my blog posts that were about to go public, so I don’t know how many other ads may have been imbedded in my story without my permission.

I co-authored the recently published book Living Well With Heart Failure, the Misnamed, Misunderstood Condition, which is why U.S. News invited me to blog on heart failure. But I found that the words “heart failure” which likely would appear in each of my blog posts and sometimes more than once in the same post automatically sent a reader to the Cleveland Clinic for an explanation of heart failure. I couldn’t provide my own sidebar on heart failure to link to or choose the site I would send my readers to for more information about heart failure? No. I was told by a producer at U.S. News that the magazine has “a partnership” with the Cleveland Clinic and that all stories across the health section of U.S. News will link to the Cleveland Clinic for certain words including “heart failure.” The producer said the magazine also has “partnerships” with a few other hospitals.

I have two objections to that. One is that U.S. News is well known for its special annual rankings of best hospitals. I would think that the magazine would consider it a conflict of interest to have a partnership with any of the hospitals it ranks. Wouldn’t a partnership between U.S. News and a hospital it ranks, that results in information routinely offered to readers by that hospital on the U.S. News website as part of news content, be interpreted as U.S. News favoring that hospital?

My second objection is that no partnership should overtake a blogger’s right to control what words in her blog will link elsewhere and where they will link. Regarding linking the words “heart failure”, it would not be fitting for me to link to a particular medical center, particularly the Cleveland Clinic. To explain, I was diagnosed with heart failure in 2003 and had a hard time finding good care. Once I did and started getting better, I asked my fourth cardiologist, Edward Kasper, to write a book with me that would alert the public to heart failure and try to find the truth as best we could about all aspects of heart failure. I eventually recovered and have a heart that works normally. Along the way I learned a lot that I wanted to pass on to others and I spent years researching and writing the book with Ed, who happens to be the clinical chief of cardiology at another pretty good hospital, the Johns Hopkins Hospital. U.S. News was running a picture of the cover of our book alongside my first blog post and had embedded in my accompanying bio a link to the book’s website.

I don’t intend to send my blog readers to Johns Hopkins Hospital for an explanation of heart failure, but I certainly didn’t need to send them to the Cleveland Clinic every week. Both Hopkins, rated as the #1 hospital in the U.S. News rankings, and the Cleveland Clinic, whose cardiology division is rated #1, are very visible in the U.S. News Best Hospitals rankings. The Cleveland Clinic touts its rating in huge print on the front of a book it has written on heart failure. I don’t want to get caught up in marketing wars. I just want to provide good information and good analysis about heart matters to my readers. I, like any blogger, should choose what words in my blog will link elsewhere and where they will link.

So, I said no to U.S. News and World Report because I could not accept the conditions they would force upon me as a blogger. I am a journalist. I will not fall in line and become a U.S. News Stepford wife.

I am currently setting up an independent blog HeartSense that will seek to find the truth as best I can about issues involving the heart and patient involvement and I will only create links to places I think will bring more information to readers about the topic I’m writing about. No ads will pop up at my readers.

I will miss not having a national audience for this blog and I do very much wish that there were a national network for health bloggers. My colleague Deborah Blum suggested to me that this might be a smart thing for the Association of Health Care Journalists to create. I agreed and passed the suggestion on to AHCJ leaders. I’ve recently learned that the California-based Reporting on Health is creating a blogging network. I hope that together we find a way to have a strong national network for health blogging that respects and defends the principles of journalism.

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34 Responses to Why I Won’t Blog for U.S. News and World Report

  1. Robin says:

    I found you on Twitter this morning via Jay Rosen. I so appreciate that I did and all that you are writing. Thank you. I have not read all the other entries on this site, but I look forward to it.

  2. ccmorton says:

    Thanks for sharing this disturbing experience. I have to admit I’m uncomfortable with sketchy ads anywhere near my copy, let alone within it–even the goofy teeth whitening ads that I cannot dismiss from my Facebook page (I’ve written about evidence-based teeth whitening procedures and products for the Boston Globe.) And a few months ago, I was shocked to see on The Scientist’s web page a “stem cell treatment” Google Ad that linked to a U.S. “clinic” offering bogus treatments of the kind investigated in Gareth Cook’s Pulitzer-winning series a few years ago, which I’m sure must have dismayed their writers as well. The ethical responsibilities of an online publisher extend beyond the clear editorial firewall needed in your case to setting some sort of advertising content standard for their viewers.

  3. David Dobbs says:

    Bully for you, Mary. Well done and well written.

  4. Maryn says:

    Eek. Dismaying and surprising. Kudos to you for making the hard decision.

  5. Dean Peters says:

    I work in interactive media, but I’ve also been blogging for almost a decade now – and before that made some cash on the side writing 1-up articles for publications such as PC Magazine.

    I understand your expectation to not have your content contradicted by advertising. I also understand the need for such publications to advertise on their online/interactive media.

    I too feel annoyed by ‘Hover ads’ – especially when they’re completely out of context and/or get in the way of the article which I’m attempting to consume.

    Being in interactive media, I wonder what the metrics are justifying such ads? Are they inflated because people see them and click through by accident them because they’re so unexpected and intrusive? I know I have.

    I also wonder which vendor U.S. News is using to provide the ads? Yes, context and geolocated ads are still a relatively new technology (Google being the ‘grandfather’ of the former). But there’s got to be a way to collaborate with authors, such as yourself, to provide key words and phrased that would then display ads that support the article rather than conflict with it?

    That said, I still find hover ads annoying to the point of abandoning whichever article I’m on.

  6. Perry says:

    I write for a beauty products blog about the science and claims of the products. The content of the blog is one of skepticism (think ‘Mythbusters’ for cosmetics). However, we have lots of advertising on the website for all kinds of products that we think are a waste of money.

    We tell our audience this and discourage wasting money on products that over-promise and under-deliver. But if people are going to read what we say and still go out and buy these products, I don’t see any reason why our website should not benefit from the money.

    Certainly, we could make more money if we pushed products that we don’t believe in but we don’t. This passive moneymaking strategy helps to fund the website and allows us to continue to publish information to help improve the critical thinking abilities of the population. People have to think for themselves.

    By passing on a big audience because there are some links you don’t like, you are reducing the number of people you’ll reach. Ultimately, you are hurting the message you want to get across.

    Yes, a few people will be mislead by the links in the article. But isn’t it still better to get your message to the thousands of people who would benefit from what you have to say?

  7. Robin Marantz Henig says:

    Thanks for publicizing this US News policy, Mary, and doing it so eloquently. And thanks to you, Deb, for posting Mary’s piece on your blog. It looks like Carl Zimmer is linking to you, too, so I’m hoping your experience starts to get publicized far and wide. Maybe if enough respected journalists like you start turning down web sites’ offers to blog for the sake of “exposure” (and I’m assuming they weren’t paying you to post, right? or if they were, it was for a laughably small fee), while really serving as a vehicle for stealth advertising, something will eventually change.

    By the way, ad policies like this aren’t anything new, or anything restricted to the web — the good old legacy media has been doing it for years. Long ago I was asked to write about mammography for a health magazine, and my article was critical of mammograms for women in their 40s. But it got heavily edited and rewritten — because the magazine had a deal with a provider to offer readers a special discount for mammograms! Amazingly, all the negatives about mammograms miraculously disappeared, and quotes from experts I’d never interviewed were inserted. I was helpless to change anything — all I could do was remove my byline, which I did.

  8. Leigh Ramsey says:

    Dear Ms. Knudson and Ms. Blum:

    Hello. First, Ms. Blum, thank you for sharing Ms. Knudson’s guest-post about her less-than-enviable experience with U.S. News and World Report.
    Second, Ms. Knudson, I hope it is not so much schadenfreude on my part, but it is inspiring to me as a fledgling health and science writer to read here about how you’ve stood up to advertorial-style moves on the part of USN&WR. I hope this (opening?) salvo will serve to galvanize bloggers at all levels, showing us that we, too, can make the same stand and that it truly does matter. I have already, even as a beginning blogger, tried to move swiftly away from clients who would use my writing, such as it is, as a conduit to sell deodorant or other wholly unrelated products.
    As Mr. Dobbs says, bravo for you, Ms. Knudson! I also hope you will keep us apprised about your own blog, HeartSense.

  9. Mary Knudson says:

    Thanks for each comment. To David Dobbs, Maryn McKenna and Robin Marantz Henig, all of whom are the best of the best science and medical journalists and David and Maryn are great bloggers, thank you so much for your wonderful comments of support. You had your own horrible experience, Robin, and I’m glad you were able to remove your byline.

    To the other Robin who just found Deborah’s wonderful blog, I can assure you that you will enjoy every post she writes. Deborah is an amazing writer!

    To CC Morton, I agree that bogus ads have no place on any website, especially not a news media or scientific publication website.

    To Dean Peters, you asked which vendor handles the imbedded ads at U.S. News and a blogger there told me it is this company http://www.kontera.com/. My objection to ads inserted into my article or blog post is not limited to ads I disagree with. I would also not want ads inserted into my blog post that supported what I said in the post. A line has to be drawn between advertising and news content. No ads of any kind should be imbedded into a blog or an article written to inform the public.

    To Perry who asks if it wouldn’t have been better to accept the ads imbedded in my blog posts in order to blog at a site where I could get many thousands of readers, the answer is a very loud no. The very most important aspect of writing is integrity. If I give up my integrity, I am nobody. I am not worthy of writing about health and medicine for the public. My decision was a matter of keeping my integrity, my trustworthiness as a writer. Once you cross a line, what next? Why should readers trust you? I teach my students at Hopkins that writing about health and healthcare for the public is a sacred trust. I believe that and so I practice it.

    To Leigh Ramsey, a self-described “fledgling health and science writer,” thank you very much for your applauding my decision and saying it is a good example to young reporters and bloggers. If you have not already I hope you join our professional organizations Association of Health Care Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. And I wish you a long and illustrious career in medical and science writing.

    To Deborah Blum — You are the best. I am a huge fan and count myself very lucky to have you as a longtime friend and we are all fortunate that you chose writing as a career.

    Mary

  10. Perry says:

    @Mary – thanks for the reply. And I completely understand your position and how you arrived at it. I just don’t agree that a writer gives up their integrity when links are put in their text. Especially if the content of their message isn’t affected by advertising links.

    The problem is that if a writer like you abandons a popular website, someone else will fill the void. Your message gets replaced by an inferior one which directly contributes to the dumbing down of the audience. This seems counterproductive.

    But like I said, your position is a completely reasonable response and US News & World Report is missing out. Hopefully, your website will supplant theirs for this type of information.

  11. Tinker Ready says:

    Will we never be free?

    Thanks for filling the rest of us in.

  12. Joe says:

    Mary,

    Thanks for demonstrating such a high level of integrity. Advertising and journalism are really opposites. Journalism is about exposing truth, and advertising is about covering or distorting it. Unfortunately the on-line advertising companies (G), have obliterated that distinction so that text and ads are one and the same.

    Of course if everyone started clicking on every ad they could find it might just drive the advertisers out of business.

    –Joe

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  14. Deborah Blum says:

    Thanks for allowing me to host your terrific post, Mary, and for your very kind comments about me! Anyone reading this post – or any of your work – will understand completely why we’ve been friends so long – you’re one of the most decent, most honest, and most caring journalists I know. U.S. News is completely the loser in this situation.

  15. Mary Knudson says:

    Very humbling. Thank you, Deborah. Much appreciated.
    Thanks also to Joe and Tinker Ready for your kind comments.

    Mary

  16. Pingback: Blogger quits U.S. News, citing sponsored links : Covering Health

  17. Julie says:

    Reading all of this makes me glad I landed in science teaching. We don’t have to worry about greedy marketing tactics in education (I’m not counting textbook sales here). It’s really interesting to see the not-so-glamorous side of a profession- so easy to miss if it is not pointed out. So it turns out science journalism also has its dark side! (Actually so does education – it is just in a different way)

    I still think science journalism looks like tons of fun, however.

  18. Please take a look at AHCJ’s blog entry about Mary’s post. It includes comments from our treasurer, Ivan Oransky. http://www.healthjournalism.org/blog/2010/10/blogger-quits-us-news-citing-sponsored-links/

    We welcome your feedback and suggestions.
    Charlie Ornstein
    AHCJ President

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  21. Mr. Gunn says:

    Intellitxt and kontera and the other sponsored link providers might be ok on a sole-proprietorship blog, where the decision to sell out is up to the blogger, but not on a site like the one at US News.

    Personally, I use a script to filter out all such annoyances. If you’d also like to do so, just install the greasemonkey add-on for Firefox &download scripts from userscripts.org. I’m happy to help anyone who needs help taking back control of their own browsing experience.

  22. Pingback: Laudable, ethical decision by veteran journalist NOT to do heart blog | Health and Fitness

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  25. Paul de Roos says:

    A very nice article. Good to be aware of these developments as being a young medical doctor working in the field of neurology, wishing to share my learning in this field with my colleagues on my way of becoming an expert in the near future.

    I guess building my own peer network and patient networks around me through social media would create a readership which will not see advertisements that I wouldn’t find appropriate along what I write will have my all time preference, when I see what could happen to me if I would work with the established publishing media. I don’t see these strategies last long..

    Best regards,

    Paul de Roos
    My personal homepage
    My Summerschool project on Parkinson’s Disease

  26. Mary Knudson says:

    Dear Paul,

    I just saw your comment on the internet and so I returned to this blog post to say thanks for commenting and I hope that you do continue to build networks through social media. More and more physicians seem to be engaging in social media in one form or another. I just noticed on Twitter today that there is an #MDchat you may find interesting.

    Mary

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  29. Good for you Mary for sticking by your morals! :-)

    -Joseph
    Emeryville Pharmaceuticals

  30. Pingback: 11th Annual Fear & Favor Report — FAIR: Fairness In Accuracy & Reporting

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