A note from a friend at a local school of journalism:
A medical journal (PLoS Medicine) published a study that examined the accuracy of 500 medical/health stories by mainstream journalists. It says mainstream journalism health coverage may be harmful to the audience. At best we exaggerate, at worst our articles completely mislead the public. The article contains embarrassing anecdotes of medical coverage. It says that the mistakes are not intentional. We're just poorly informed about what we are covering.
And here is an editorial in the same journal summarizing the implications of the study. Excerpts:
When it comes to the quality of health reporting, why is the bar set so low? One problem is that today's health reporters may have been covering crime last week and politics the week before. They have rarely been trained to understand the complexities of health research.
There is also a broader context in which medical stories get exaggerated—the 24-hour news cycle means that media organizations are battling for audience share, which in turn means that “the press has moved towards sensationalism, entertainment, and opinion”.
Researchers benefit from the publicity because it may increase citations to their study and help their chances of promotion or tenure, while a highly visible story of a dramatic medical breakthrough can boost a journalist's career.
When a health story gets hyped, it is all too easy for medical journal editors to deny any responsibility. The reality, of course, is that journal editors themselves are the third party in the “complicit collaboration”—the journal's press release is the usual mechanism for linking the researcher to the journalist. Medical journals issue press releases about their upcoming studies partly because media publicity drives readers to the journal and builds brand recognition. A bland press release may be less likely to get your journal and the study noticed.
Schwitzer's alarming report card of the trouble with medical news stories is thus a wake-up call for all of us involved in disseminating health research—researchers, academic institutions, journal editors, reporters, and media organizations—to work collaboratively to improve the standards of health reporting.