Media Drop Ball on Medical News

By David L. Brown

Our nation’s health care system is in shambles. Pharmaceutical companies and insurers are squeezing medical professionals from both sides, manipulating patients in ways that make it difficult or impossible for doctors to perform their best.

Contributing to this problem is the constant barrage of advertisements and commercials with which Big Pharm encourages poorly-informed individuals to self-diagnose their real or imagined illnesses, then demand that their doctors prescribe Big Pharm’s drug du jour. Few doctors can resist these demands, since patients will simply find another doctor who will write the scrips.
Adding to the confusion, and assuring that consumers will remain ill-informed, is the poor quality of mainstream media (MSM) reporting on health issues. For example, the May, 2006 issue of The Quill, the magazine of The Society of Professional Journalists reports:

Study Finds Flaws in Television Health Coverage

A study of 1,799 TV health stories by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Michigan found that “the typical story was only 33 seconds long, lacked specifics, and, in a few cases, contained egregious and sometimes potentially deadly errors,” the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported March 8.

“Most of the stories were not useful, but not overly harmful,” lead author James Pribble told the Journal-Sentinel.

Researcher Ken Goldstein told the Journal-Sentinel the health officials, doctors and researchers share the blame for poor coverage by not effectively communicating with media.

“We all like criticizing local news,” Goldstein told the Journal-Sentinel, “and it’s easy. But, I also think there’s blame to go around.”

[Disclosure statement: the author of this Star Phoenix Base article is a long-time member of The Society of Professional Journalists.]

Well, sorry but those last two paragraphs from The Quill contain self-serving misdirection. It is not the responsibility of news sources to make sure the media get their stories right. If that were so, journalists would be nothing more than bulletin board managers and the press and electronic media would have no more meaning than an in-box full of news releases. The press constantly whines about how responsible it is, about its sacred duty to provide facts and report truth … but when evidence appears that news reports “were not useful” and in some cases may have been harmful, fingers are pointed at the sources. That’s like blaming the wall for your poor taste in wallpaper.

This problem in reportage goes far beyond the field of medicine and applies to every phase of science and technology, but coverage of medical science provides a good model for how the MSM drops the ball when it comes to reporting fully and factually on technical subjects.

One very common error is reporting a new study while providing little or no context with earlier findings or studies. Stories are too often “reported” in an information vacuum. For example, there may be hundreds of valid studies that show opposite results, but when the press reports on a new finding it all too often trumpets the story as if the latest result is the final, unalterable, and sole truth on the subject.

The MSM also likes to top such shoddy reporting with a doomsday headline, such as (and these are sarcastic hypotheticals): “Breathing Fresh Air Causes Cancer,” or “Eating Broccoli Leads to Early Death.” One sometimes has to remind oneself that these are stories from supposdely reliable news sources, not checkout line tabloids.

Another common error is to find counter arguments, no matter how off-center they might be, supposedly to provide “balance” in the story. This can result in a situation where 999 out of 1000 scientists believe that A is true while one other will happily deny it and tout alternative B. The denying parties often have conflicts of interest, are not particularly knowledgeable about the subject, or for other reasons are not good choices as sources of facts or reasonable opinions. And yet, individuals of that ilk are regularly searched out and quoted by the media, adding to confusion and lack of being well-informed on the part of readers.

Science and technology play extremely important roles in our modern world, and it is a serious breach of responsibility on the part of the MSM in failing to report news from these fields. It is a particular shame when the coverage of medicine plays into the hands of Big Pharma, which is on a constant crusade to eliminate safe and proven natural remedies in order to increase sales of their toxic chemical drugs, most of which have serious side effects. Recent revelations that Vioxx, Celexa, and other drugs have significant dangers were in many cases played down or even suppressed by their manufacturers.

This is a dangerous situation, particularly when politics is added to the mix. Big Pharm and the medical insurance cabals have billions of dollars to spend promoting their snake oil, and are major campaign contributors. The role of the press should be to counterbalance this, providing solid facts to consumers and politicians alike. Clearly, they are failing miserably in this duty to their publics.

Could it be that the MSM has “sold out” to big-spending advertisers, public relations flacks and lobbyists? Yes, it could be.

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