(see what I did there)

When something in the media doesn’t jive with our political leanings, we Americans are pretty quick to find all the faulty arguments presented and dismiss the piece. If we are particularly open-minded, we might concede that the article makes a good point and neither party has the answer. But rarely are we swayed to change our political beliefs or our voting plans. It’s why most major elections hinge on a few votes in a handful of states.

Not so with medical journalism. If the last few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that we are ready to accept the Hollywood version of epidemics. And we accept it with little or no evidence to support the idea. We change our habits, we keep our children out of school, and we prepare to suspend civil liberties at the suggestion of a headline.

But what harm is a little caution when it comes to our health? Well, for starters, the World Bank estimates that “90% of economic losses during any outbreak arise from the uncoordinated and irrational efforts of the public to avoid infection.”

It’s a difficult scenario. Most of us aren’t trained in virology or epidemiology, so we “err on the side of caution” when it comes to our health.

Media outlets know this. They use frightening headlines, speculation and bad science to sell to a fearful public. Ebola has given us an opportunity to see this play out in a condensed time period. But this sort of thing happens all the time in the world of health care journalism.

Gary Schwitzer, a 40-year veteran of health care journalism, recognized the issue. It motivated him to start Health News Review in 2006. Medical experts affiliated with the organization review health related news stories. They use a ten item list to review each story, evaluating them for evidence, conflicts of interest, benefit vs. harm and more.

The organization lost funding last year, but it is my understanding that they may have funding again soon. Regardless, the list they use offers us all some questions to evaluate the health news we receive. This is particularly valuable if the news is something we might act on.

Without a critical evaluation, we may simply be acting on an assertion from a press release written by a for profit entity. Or we may be changing our habits based on a study of only 13 people. We can’t (and shouldn’t) count on journalists to dig into this for us. We have to be responsible for understanding the information we use.

We must all make decisions about how we spend our healthcare dollars, what procedures we subject ourselves to, and how we conduct our daily lives. The media can be a great source of information to aid in those decisions. But we must require substance to back up the Cosmo headline. And if recent reporting on the Ebola outbreak is any indication, we can’t rely on the media to provide that for us.