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.