Editorial criticizes media coverage of health news

by BRIDGETTE TAYLOR | 11/29/09 11:00pm

Media coverage of health news is often exaggerated, causing unnecessary anxiety and unfounded fears in the general public, according to an editorial written by three medical experts, including two Dartmouth Medical School professors. The article, "Promoting Healthy Skepticism in the News: Helping Journalists Get it Right," was published online in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute on Nov. 20 and suggests ways that both journalists and researchers can avoid the exaggeration of medical developments.

"Many health journalists lack the medical or statistical training needed to appraise research critically," the article states. "Curiously, many fail to approach medical research with the same skepticism they routinely apply to political reporting."

The editorial does not, however, hold journalists solely responsible for public health misconceptions, saying that there is "plenty of blame to go around.

Authors Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz, DMS professors, and Barnett Kramer, director of the Office of Medical Applications of Research at the National Institutes of Health Office of Disease Prevention, argue that medical journal articles and press releases also contribute to the problem.

"Can we really expect journalists to do a better job than the medical journals, researchers or their university public relations offices?" the article asks.

The editorial includes several "tip sheets" outlining ways that reporters can improve their health news coverage. The sheets, published on the Journal of the National Cancer Institute's web site, describe appropriate language for medical articles and help reporters correctly analyze study findings to gauge their accuracy and importance.

"We hope that efforts within medical journals and those directed toward journalists will help foster healthy skepticism in the news," the article states. "Namely, setting a higher bar for covering very preliminary or inherently weak research, routinely providing data to support claims, and always highlighting study limitations."

Woloshin, in an interview with The Dartmouth, said that the authors also intended for the article to encourage journal editors to be more wary of exaggeration.

"Maybe the editors will pay a little more attention to how the information is reported," he said. "Any study has potential weaknesses, and it's really important for the journals to highlight that so the readers are aware of the issues."

The editorial may also be helpful for readers, Woloshin said.

"We hope [the general public will] understand how to be sure that they're getting a clear, fair representation of the study results," he said.

Woloshin specifically mentioned articles concerning mammography recommendations as misleading.

"A lot of their stories don't provide the information that people need," he said. "[Mammography] is really about trying to prevent harm and injuries and unnecessary diagnoses. That gets lost because the coverage does not provide the kind of data people need."

The editorial draws on material discussed at the annual Medicine and Media workshop, which The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice has hosted for the past eight years to teach 50 journalists per session how to cover medical stories, Woloshin said.