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Why are health reporters less critical than press releases?

Health reporting on television is notoriously terrible. In fact, the excellent folks at Health News Review, an organization that recruits independent doctors and researchers to rate media stories, stopped reviewing television programs.

So this is not to pick on WRAL, which is a great station. I only point out this problem to illustrate a larger issue with health care reporting.

Yesterday WRAL ran a story claiming that a new vaccine developed by Duke University researchers could help extend the life of some brain tumor patients. The entire story was positive and included a personal anecdote from a golfer who seems to be benefiting from the treatments.

Now move to the press release from Duke about the vaccine. This thing is packed with critical qualifications. This quote, for example, seems relevant:

The data suggest that these responses are linked to increased survival time, “but the numbers are so small that we can not conclude this with any degree of certainty,” says Amy Heimberger, MD, co-lead investigator, from MD Anderson.

Oh. How small are the numbers? 18 patients. 18 people are getting the vaccine. That’s it. And remember, this quote is from the press release. It’s no where to be found in the news story.

And there’s also this gem at the end of the release:

Drs. Bigner, Heimberger and Sampson, along with Duke University and MD Anderson have potential conflicts of interest from consulting agreements, stock options and potential further licensing fees. Duke and MD Anderson have plans in place to manage any potential conflict of interest.

What kind of conflicts do these doctors have? What plans are in place to manage conflicts of interest? These are only a few questions that spring to mind for the intrepid reporter to ask.

Health stories are difficult to decipher, especially if you aren’t a researcher. But if you are less critical than a press release, it’s time to rethink your coverage.

5 Comments

  1. Laara

    October 5, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    I work with reporters and producers all the time, and have to say, they don’t seem as smart as they used to be, nor are they as dedicated to the public’s right to know as they used to be.

    So many of the young people going into broadcasting now now seem to be conceited narcissists who see it as a way to become famous — not because they have any interest in public affairs.

    If they do have any enterprising spirit, that will quickly be beaten out of them through grueling work schedules and understaffing. Maybe this will change, as the internet makes us all realize that anyone can be on tv, and it’s no big deal!

  2. Adam Linker

    October 5, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    I will say that WRAL is a very interested in public affairs. It does a great job there. But, like much health reporting these days, the station is not putting critical questions to researchers.

  3. Alex O.

    October 5, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    Every time a story comes out about a new treatment for MS in the media I have to explain to my friends I know about it and it is not as promising as it is portrayed. One of the problems I think Is the media is really a sound bite for medical information not something in depth. On the other hand with other things they scare you to death. For example everything causes cancer or we are all going to die in a flu epidemic.

    Heck there is just as much fluff medicine on the internet. Someone recently had a medical issue and asked me how to research it because he knows I have done so much research myself and know what is accurate.

    I ask myself all the time if I am watching the local news or ET.

  4. Wellescent Health Blog

    October 5, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    In the search for content that excites and commands viewer retention, it is not surprising to see the stations building up stories that would otherwise be little more than a note on research progress. Unfortunately, it is a part of these stations being corporate entities whose first goal is advertising income. They constantly need to fill space with as little effort as possible and unfortunately, this will inevitably have some effect on reporting integrity.

  5. Lou Meyers

    October 5, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    Yes, to all above!

    A strike by conscientious news reporters and all station personnel is the cure. After all, there are real people suffering on the other side of that lens. Certainly you have family and friends outside the studio who speak to you, so you know what we are experiencing out here
    —- and it’s not pretty!

    All we are asking for is the truth!