Why mainstream health reporting is crap

August 9th, 2009  |  Published in Stumpblog  |  2 Comments

From Johns Hopkins:

Reports in the media are commonly the first opportunity you have to learn about new drugs as well as safety issues with existing prescription medications. However, the depth and accuracy of the medical news you receive depend greatly on the skills and experience of reporters, editors, and producers. They also depend to some extent on where you get the news — for example, from a brief segment on local TV news or from a large national newspaper or magazine. Here are results from a recent survey, which rated health reporting in the U.S.

Health news in this country [the US] often does not provide the type of information consumers need to make informed decisions about medical tests, products, and procedures, according to a recent survey reported in the Public Library of Science Medicine.

Over 22 months, media researchers rated 500 health news reports from major newspapers, the Associated Press wire, and three TV networks according to how well they fulfilled certain quality standards. They concluded that 62 to 77% of stories didn’t adequately address costs, risks, benefits, the quality of the evidence, and other treatment options when covering healthcare products and procedures.

Specific shortcomings include the following:

  • 77% did not discuss costs of the treatment.
  • 72% did not quantify health benefits— for example, how much more effective is a new medication than the standard treatment?
  • 67% did not quantify potential harms—for example, what is the actual risk of having a serious side effect?
  • 65% did not discuss the quality of the scientific evidence for the effectiveness of the new treatment.
  • 62% did not discuss treatment alternatives.

The authors hope their evaluation will lead health news organizations to re-evaluate their practices to better serve consumers.

[Yeah, right.]


  1. Elizabeth Fry says:

    August 9th, 2009at 6:04 pm(#)

    But will consumers take the time to really learn how to evaluate research? I sure didn’t until I was forced in grad school (health-care related field). Very few people have statistics skills or have actually evaluated a “body of literature” about any topic.

    You’ve done a great job of summarizing some of the techniques on this site — I can see your college professor roots coming through. But shoot — what did I respond to first? A post about how a training routine that doesn’t require much thinking is a good thing. What does that say about me? And I tend to think of myself as a more savvy than average consumer of the research literature!


  2. psi*psi says:

    August 11th, 2009at 12:53 am(#)

    Is this really surprising at all? Look at the abysmal state of science reporting…medicine isn’t the only news lacking in depth of coverage!

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