The standard critique of media coverage of health and medical research goes like this: we’re either naively enthusiastic and happy to uncritically disseminate researchers’ claims about their findings OR we’re guilty of spreading scare stories that cause unwarranted fear and confusion.
Both scenarios arise because we don’t ask the sort of questions that would help us and our audiences make better sense of researchers’ claims, whether about breakthroughs or hazards.
A number of studies and academic articles have raised these concerns over the years; an interesting addition to the critique has just been published in an online editorial in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, titled, Promoting Healthy Skepticism in the News: Helping Journalists Get it Right.
The authors use two examples to support their argument that much media coverage is promoting either exaggerated hope or fear: the reporting of a study of a new cancer treatment published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and of another study that drew front-page headlines on an association between alcohol and breast cancer. Many of the media reports of both studies served audiences poorly.
The authors acknowledge, however, that journalistic failings are not the only problem. Researchers, medical journals and institutions (including their PR departments) could do more to ensure that the public receives a more balanced and nuanced coverage. “Can we really expect journalists to do a better job than the medical journals, researchers, or their university public relations offices?” the authors ask.
The Journal has launched a web site to help journalists lift their game, which includes a number of tip sheets around interpreting data and studies. Some of these may be heavy going for non-specialists (and even for specialist reporters).
I particularly like the one that gives some suggested cautions to use, such as:
• “These findings are based on a small study; larger studies are needed to really understand how much the intervention works.”
• “Do not assume that the results of animal studies apply to humans: it generally takes years to know if they translate to people.”
No doubt some of the media industry hardheads will scoff that these critiques are out of touch with the reality of time-poor, audience-driven newsrooms.
I don’t think that defence cuts it any more, if it ever did. Not in this age which gives the audience equal access to the original material – including to media critiques like this latest one.
But I do have some concerns about this type of critique; the major one being that they tend to overlook one of the biggest flaws of media coverage of health: that we under-report so many areas that are important, particularly for the health of disadvantaged groups and areas.
My worry with these sort of critiques is they keep the media focus firmly on reporting of new research and new treatments, rather than, for example, investigating the impact of health policy and service delivery and other such issues which actually affect peoples’ lives.
Imagine what a difference it might have made over the last decade if Indigenous health got even half of the media space and attention that was given over to reporting of new studies whose significance for health and people in the real world is often questionable.
But writing up a new journal publication is so much easier – and here I am, doing it now…