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Health reporters should have 'higher standards,' commentary says

Health journalists are getting scolded by one of their own. Susan Dentzer, a correspondent for PBS's the NewsHour, argues in a commentary in today's New England Journal of Medicine that medical reporters too often get the facts wrong, fail to provide context about new research, and hype treatments that don’t deserve the coverage.

Most to blame: the new 24/7 news cycle that's put journos under pressure to produce reams of copy under tight deadlines. She says some manage to get it right despite the time constraint and attempts to make the news easy enough for lay viewers and readers to understand. "But all too frequently, what is conveyed about health by many other journalists is wrong or misleading," Dentzer says in the piece. "When journalists ignore complexities or fail to provide context, the public health messages they convey are inevitably inadequate or distorted."

Among examples she cites: coverage of the 2006 federally funded STAR*D trial, which found that about half of seriously depressed people were helped by antidepressants after trying two drugs. Dentzer complains that reporters took a glass-half-empty angle on the results, emphasizing that the meds' usefulness dropped precipitously for the other half.  

She also writes that some media reports on a recent trial of two cholesterol drugs, Ezetimibe and Simvastitin, mischaracterized the findings, suggesting that researchers found the meds did not prevent heart attacks or strokes when, in fact, the trial's stated end point was to measure whether they prevented plaque from building up in the arteries.

There's nothing new about criticizing the media for its lack of nuance, says Trudy Lieberman, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), which offers annual conferences and periodic training sessions for its 1,100 members. (Full disclosure: ScientificAmerican.com managing editor Ivan Oransky is an AHCJ board member.)

"The big reason this isn’t covered better," Lieberman tells ScientificAmerican.com, "is that there are conflicts of interests up and down the food chain."

Lieberman, who wrote about the problem three years ago in the Columbia Journalism Review, remembers hearing about what health journalists are up against. "Reporters often told me that they would like to write about gray areas and nuances, but their editors won't let them because the editors are looking for something jazzy," she says. "If the nuances are there, they're jumped to the second page if they're there at all."

But much of daily health reporting these days is based on findings reported in medical journals. They, too, have come under criticism recently for failing to disclose authors' potential conflicts of interest, such as their ties to companies that paid for the research (those caveats are becoming more transparent). But journals usually publish "good" news — a phenomenon detailed in several studies this year that showed how rarely pharmaceutical companies publish studies with negative findings.

The journals, Lieberman notes, have same interest as the mainstream media. "They want to build an audience and hope because the American healthcare system is built on hope and money."

Image © iStockphoto/Gino Santa Maria

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