Senior WebMD health editor Miranda Hitti cautioned her listeners Tuesday against trusting online reporting unconditionally.
Hitti spoke about the changing reputation of journalism in today’s digital age as she discussed her experiences working with the leading online health website at a Trumbull College Master’s Tea. She offered journalistic tips to a primarily older audience of around 25 people, focusing on how to maintain clarity and credibility amid a number of online publications that range in trustworthiness.
Hitti joined WebMD, a popular medical information website, as a writer in 2005. During her time as a reporter and editor, Hitti said she has worked to make complicated scientific and medical reports accessible to the general public — a task that sometimes feels like “translating a foreign language.”
“What we do in our jobs has the ability to help people learn what they’re dealing with in their own lives,” Hitti said.
With the Internet open to all kinds of contributors, Hitti said it is essential for publications like WebMD to vet the legitimacy of online scientific news before accepting it as fact. Certain key words, such as “cure” or “miracle,” often indicate that a medical article is not trustworthy or jumps to overblown conclusions, Hitti said. Studies’ context and methodology are also important in determining their legitimacy, she added.
In 2009, Hitti covered the international swine flu outbreak for WebMD, which she described as her single most dramatic reporting assignment. At the time, Hitti said she was dealing with breaking updates about the virus and did not know whether swine flu was a passing scare or a medical pandemic. Throughout her coverage of the disease’s spread, Hitti said she focused on upholding high journalistic standards.
“Do what it takes to maintain your standards, because when the stakes are high, that’s when it counts the most,” Hitti said.
Even in today’s 24-hour news cycle and constant race to be the first to publish, Hitti said, WebMD would not want to be “first and wrong.”
While WebMD publishes articles that aim to reach out to people of all ages, the website also hosts an online symptom checker. But Hitti emphasized that WebMD’s symptom checker cannot substitute for a doctor’s diagnosis.
“I’ve used it in the past as an informal diagnostic tool and gotten interesting results — I’ve been told that I have the plague,” said attendee Hannah Mogul-Adlin ’13, adding that people often treat WebMD results as matters of fact.
Trumbull College Master Janet Henrich, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine, agreed that those browsing online medical websites should always exercise cautious skepticism.
“Part of the value of the Internet is the amount of information, but what is good information?” Henrich said. “I’ve always seen WebMD as producing not just information but also education.”
In addition to publishing articles and providing an online symptom checker, WebMD also offers “Expert Blogs” written by medical professionals.