When I look back at my 20-odd years as a health reporter, there are many things I wish I’d done better or differently (including winning more fights with news editors).
So I am very sympathetic to concerns about the media’s coverage of health that are raised by a senior US health policy journalist, Susan Dentzer, in the January 1 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
In summary, Dentzer argues that much of what we learn about health issues from the media is wrong, misleading or lacking context. She gives several recent examples to back up this claim.
“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,” she says.
“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 realties.
“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?”
For my money, Dentzer’s critique neglects a central flaw of the media’s coverage of health.
It’s not only how we cover stories that can be a problem. Just as important are the stories that we don’t cover. Stories about new research findings and “breakthrough” treatments (whether or not they will ever have any real bearing on peoples’ lives) or hospital waiting lists are the bread-and-butter of the health round.
The more complex stories about issues which really have an impact on our lives (such as the inequity in how health resources are allocated, the barriers to improving patient care, and the social, economic and structural forces shaping our health) rarely receive such prominent coverage.
They are not so easily reduced to snappy, sexy headlines. And, in my experience at least, they are very difficult to sell to news editors, who’d prefer a “cancer breakthrough” headline anyday.