Health News Review, a wonderful resource developed by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making, tackles a problematic trend in health news reporting: PR and marketing campaigns disguised as medical news.
Many people today get their health news in snippets from major media outlets. Readers of this blog will note that I probably comment more frequently on N.Y. Times columns than any other source, including medical journals. Health News Review was established to help "consumers evaluate the evidence for and against new ideas in health care." Publisher Gary Schwitzer leads a team of reviewers evaluating the accuracy of health news reporting from a variety of media outlets. Schwitzer this week wrote a timely essay, excerpted below, on the disturbing trend of media bias in medical reporting.
I've written previously about this bias in both print and television stories, and I am certain that even "reputable" medical journals have a publishing bias. For example, certain journals seem to favor publication of negative outcomes for CAM therapies and non-publication of favorable outcomes or descriptions of CAM therapies. The best example I can cite is the publication of two papers, based on the same data from the same research project, from the same authors, on the use of echinacea in children. A well-known, conventional journal published "Efficacy and safety of Echinacea in treating upper respiratory tract infections in children" with the following conclusion: "Echinacea purpurea, as dosed in this study, was not effective in treating URI symptoms in patients 2 to 11 years old, and its use was associated with an increased risk of rash." The other article, "Echinacea purpurea for prevention of upper respiratory tract infections in children," with a different, more positive conclusion ("Echinacea purpurea may be effective in reducing the occurrence of subsequent URIs in children"), was relegated to a more obscure, CAM journal. Is this bias connected in some way to the sources of advertising in those journals? Or maybe it's just due to a general bias in conventional medical circles against non-pharmaceutical therapies.
The flip-side of this bias is the push by industry and institutions to advertise products and services via so-called special medical reports. I encourage you to read on and to check out the Health News Review site.
Troubling TV Health News Trends
supporting excellence in health & medical news reporting
March 15, 2007
In the February issue of Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), Trudy Lieberman writes about TV news stations accepting pre-packaged new stories created by health care behemoths such as the Cleveland Clinic or the Mayo Clinic, creating stories that are "a hybrid of news and marketing, the likes of which has spread to local TV newsrooms all across the country in a variety of forms, almost like an epidemic. It’s the product of a marriage of the hospitals’ desperate need to compete for lucrative lines of business in our current health system and of TV’s hunger for cheap and easy stories. In some cases the hospitals pay for airtime, a sponsorship, and in others, they don’t but still provide expertise and story ideas. Either way, the result is that too often the hospitals control the story. Viewers who think they are getting news are really getting a form of advertising. And critical stories—hospital infection rates, for example, or medical mistakes or poor care— tend not to be covered in such a cozy atmosphere. The public, which could use real health reporting these days, gets something far less than quality, arms- length journalism."
Some recent network TV segments point to an unquestioning – almost cheerleading – approach to health news coverage.
On March 10, Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s HouseCall program on CNN featured a story on anxiety disorders, and offered one of those handy self-assessments that allows you to diagnose yourself with almost anything under the sun. Gupta said only one in five people with anxiety disorders get help. Then he offered a self- assessment from the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA). He said if you answered yes to any of the questions, you could seek help from your doctor or from ADAA.
He did not mention that the ADAA’s corporate advisory council is made up of drug companies Eli Lilly & Company, Forest Laboratories, Pfizer, Inc. and Wyeth.
On February 6, CNN reported on "ArteFill, billed as the first permanent filler." CNN said "known side effects are minimal."
But it's easy to find the following on the FDA website:
Side effects of ArteFill® include:
- Lumpiness at injection area more than one month after injection
- Persistent swelling or redness
- Increased sensitivity
- Rash, itching more than 48 hours after injection
Let's let consumers decide if those sound "minimal" or not. The story never mentioned that one of the conditions of FDA approval last fall was that a five-year study for safety be done after approval, a clear sign that reviewers were not convinced that all the evidence on safety was yet in.
And NBC hit the trifecta with three recent stories:
NBC’s Mike Taibbi getting his lungs scanned for cancer, then personally endorsing the scans. (The benefits of such scans were questioned in a study in JAMA in March.)
NBC’ s Josh Mankiewicz reporting on the “benefits” from GlaxoSmithKline ads for a restless leg syndrome drug – ads they featured during the NBC Nightly News.
NBC using some of its tight 22-minutes of airtime to report on a “laser hair comb” showing a graphic - “Hair breakthrough?”.
Lieberman concludes her CJR article: “...stories about profitable, high-tech, yet often unproven procedures stimulate demand for them, fueling ever- rising health care costs. Local TV health journalism doesn’t often discuss those big issues, or even often take on the smaller stories that together weave a tale of a health care system in trouble.”
And, as you can see, sometimes network TV news isn't much better. This is a growing concern, one we will continue to analyze on this site.