Junkfood Science: <i>Commentary</i> — From the “Don’t miss this story!” file

November 28, 2006

Commentary — From the “Don’t miss this story!” file

Media Distort Health Risks, Say Experts

Maia Szalavitz at STATS reported on the Foundation for American Communication’s seminar on covering health risks held at Columbia University, saying:

...the surfeit of scare stories and misleading articles cited at last week's Foundation for American Communication's seminar on covering health risks at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism suggests that most media organizations have a long way to go in giving the public a true picture of which health issues should concern them and which are less worrisome.

Kimberly Thompson, Associate Professor of Risk Analysis and Decision Science at Harvard’s School of Public Health noted early in her presentation that "the good news is that we're living longer," which is something that is rarely mentioned in articles about frightening new discoveries that could present a danger to health. Coverage of risks to children, for example, rarely notes that today's kids have a far longer life expectancy than ever before — but reporters tend to take for granted the false assumption that the modern world holds more dangers for children....

Kay Dickersin, Director, Center for Clinical Trials, Johns Hopkins University, reviewed how clinical trials can be understood and covered, noting that many trials which are started remain unpublished, and that this can bias the scientific literature. She also noted that only 60% of abstracts presented at meetings—which are often given big coverage in the media—result in peer-reviewed publication.

Dickersin discussed other forms of bias and also urged reporters to include information on both absolute and relative risk.Relative risk numbers can make a story sexier and scarier: for example, while a hypothetical medication might double the risk of heart disease (the relative risk), if that means the risk goes from 1 in 100,000 to 2 in 100,000 (the absolute risk), it might not really be something for patients to fret over....

When we work from the hair-raising, overstated health risks in the media, the bad science and popular beliefs that surround us every day, it is impossible to accurately figure out what really puts us at risk and what isn’t worth worrying about.

“Obviously, a man’s judgment cannot be better than the information on which he has based it.”—Arthur Hays Sulzberger, 1891-1968

The constant bombardment of news of hypothetical dangers, and our increased intolerance of risks, contrasts with the reality that we live in a safer world and are healthier than ever. The media could be a positive influence and help us understand complex issues so that we can make health decisions that are best for ourselves. As much as we think we don’t, most of us on some level do believe the health news we see on television and printed in prominent publications. The way that a risk is depicted and how often it is repeated can make a big difference in how serious it seems. Even the most wary of us can be seized by alarming soundbytes. It is easy to scare us in a soundbyte, but impossible to really confer understanding of an issue in a few words.

The public places a lot of its trust in communication professionals to investigate and communicate the soundest information and in a conscientious way. But, sadly, those expectations are seldom realized. Adequate coverage of science is rare. The media is lured to report sensational headlines, spine-tingling scares, miracle breakthroughs and popular stories. By being unquestioning, not going to original sources, over-simplifying issues into black-and-white, and framing stories as they are presented to them, media also falls victim to powerful public relations entities representing major financial or political interests.

The responsibility is shared by both journalists and the scientific and medical community, though. As doctors Lisa M. Schwartz, M.D. and Steven Woloshin, M.D. wrote in “The Media Matter: A Call for Straightforward Medical Reporting:”

The medical community should take more responsibility to help make straightforward medical reporting a reality….Too often, medical researchers and the media focus more on getting attention for their message than on getting their message right.

As the FAC seminar highlighted, the dearth of reasoned, objective science from the media plays a major part in today’s climate of fear and distorted perceptions of the risks present in our modern life.

Yet this key point was overlooked among the sources for our misguided risk assessments written in the Times Magazine article, “How Americans are Living Dangerously.” In giving examples of how we misplace risks, the authors perfectly illustrated Professor Thompson’s points that popular assumptions are believed without question and false perceptions are common among today’s reporters. For example: believing that being overweight or obese is more deadly than smoking or not wearing your seatbelt; that french fries and salty nachos are more dangerous than food-borne illnesses; that we’re being misled to think mad cow is less of a concern than children drowning in bathtubs; that we should worry about the cholesterol in our burgers because it contributes to heart disease and kills us; and that pesticides and other toxins threaten us.

But one of their comments inadvertently illustrated an especially relevant concept. Scientists and experts are six times less likely to fear things the rest of us do, probably because they often understand the science and the actual risks better than we do. Rather than distrust scientists’ undisturbed stance, we might be better helped by embracing the science, too.
Bookmark and Share