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Flagrant Flaws in Popular Media Reports on Health Risks

Posted by Jerry De Luca on Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The internet has spawned a deluge of medical “news” and opinions on health risks and conditions. Self-styled health gurus proliferate wildly in web sites, blogs and Facebook feeds spewing out fake “cures” for diseases. This fragmentation of health information is made worse when the mainstream media does a poor job covering medical stories.

Cancer epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine Geoffrey C. Kabat, in his book Getting Risk Right: Understanding The Science of Elusive Health Risks, writes:  

“The staples of media reporting are stories that have the appearance of being relevant to our lives. Thus a scientific finding that suggests an association between an exposure alleged to affect the general population and a disease is more likely to gain news coverage than findings from a negative study. Many players in the media see it as their mission, as well as a business necessity, to awaken interest in ‘new developments’. They can’t afford to devote resources to putting a research finding in context or reporting on the long slog of research on obscure topics, because this does not attract most readers or viewers.  Thus much media reporting is the antithesis of a critical assessment of what the reported findings may actually mean. The implicit justification for these news items is that they provide information that will be of interest and of use to the public. But many, if not most, of these reports are simply misleading or wrong and convey ‘information’ that is of no conceivable use.

“It is not that there is no high quality reporting in the area of health and health risks. On the contrary, there are many outstanding sources of informed and critical reporting on these issues. However, there are two problems. First, this more solid and more thoughtful journalism exists on a different plane from the much more salient reports that make the headlines, and it cannot compete with the latter. Second, those who avail themselves of these more informed sources of information do so because they are looking for reliable information on complex and difficult questions. Thus, this type of journalism is, to a large extent, preaching to the converted.”

(Geoffrey C. Kabat, Getting Risk Right: Understanding The Science of Elusive Health Risks, Columbia University Press, 2017)

Health care journalist Susan Dentzer, who is also the editor of the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs, writes in The New England Journal of Medicine:

“In my view, we in the news media have a responsibility to hold ourselves to higher standards if there is any chance that doctors and patients will act on the basis of our reporting. We are not clinicians, but we must be more than carnival barkers; we must be credible health communicators more interested in conveying clear, actionable health information to the public than carrying out our other agendas. There is strong evidence that many journalists agree — and in particular, consider themselves poorly trained to understand medical studies and statistics. But not only should our profession demand better training of health journalists, it should also require that health stories, rather than being rendered in black and white, use all the grays on the palette to paint a comprehensive picture of inevitably complex realities. Journalists could start by imposing on their work a ‘prudent reader or viewer’ test: On the basis of my news account, what would a prudent person do or assume about a given medical intervention, and did I therefore succeed in delivering the best public health message possible?”

Just one example of this type of shoddy journalism was committed by USA Today, Newsweek, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University sent out a press release to journalists with the headline: “Temple study: Extra-virgin olive oil preserves memory & protects brain against Alzheimer’s.”  Health News Review put the claims in perspective:

“That’s a headline that surely got journalists’ attention. It’s not until after two very long opening paragraphs extolling the virtues of the nearly magical powers of extra virgin olive oil that we find out who, exactly this was tested on. Mice.

“‘Brain cells from mice fed diets enriched with extra-virgin olive oil had higher levels of autophagy and reduced levels of amyloid plaques and phosphorylated tau,’ a researcher is quoted as saying in the release.

“So, first off, this is rodent research. It’s never mentioned in the news release, but this hypothesis was tested on only 22 mice, just 10 of which got the olive oil rich diet, and 12 of which got a standard diet. As in: The sample size here is so small that we can’t be very sure what the results are telling us.” 

One of the most useful and reliable sites for scrutinizing medical news in the popular media is the above referenced Health News Review. Their page “What we review and how” lists the following:

Each day we will review the websites of the following papers that are among the leaders in daily circulation: Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian

Also checked daily: National Public Radio health & science page

The websites of the following TV networks: ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC

Wire or news services: Associated Press health news, Bloomberg News, HealthDay, Reuters Health

Checked regularly: Websites of news magazines TIME, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report as well as Vox.com, Slate.com, FiveThirtyEight.com and BuzzFeed.com

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Photo: https://www.unityinlynnwood.org/sites/unityinlynnwood.org/files/pictures/media.jpg

Jerry De Luca is a Christian freelance writer who loves perusing dozens of interesting and informative publications. When he finds any useful info he summarizes it, taking the main points, and creates a (hopefully) helpful blog post.


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