Issue 36 / 17 September 2012

CONCERNS about media reports on health and science being inaccurate and distorted have been raised in two separate journals.

In this week’s MJA, Australian researchers found that the media was not fulfilling its “crucial” role of accurately reporting on screening and diagnostic tests. (1)

The researchers, who are involved in the Media Doctor Australia website, identified 1581 medical news stories reported between June 2004 and February 2011, of which 113 reported on screening tests and 72 on diagnostic tests.

“Most stories addressed the novelty of the test (80% rated as satisfactory) and avoided disease mongering (90%). Fifty-seven per cent of stories covered diagnostic options, but only 36% discussed the evidence behind the test’s claims, and 24% quantified diagnostic accuracy”, the researchers wrote.

“Potential harms of testing were covered in only 29%, and 26% mentioned costs. A minority of stories (38%) included independent expert comment to interpret the claims and provide context for the reader.”

They found that overall the reports of screening tests were superior to those on diagnostic tests.

Balanced and accurate reporting was essential because media reports were an important source of health information for consumers, the researchers said.

“The media play a crucial role here, and in our view are not fulfilling it adequately”, they wrote.

“Some of the worst stories of the ones we rated were about early phase or poorly substantiated science. An example is the promotion of thermography for detection of breast cancer in young women.”

The authors provided a list of questions that journalists should routinely ask when presented with claims about new tests, such as: “Will the test be used to screen a healthy population or to confirm a clinical suspicion of disease? If the former, what will the false-positive rate in the target population be?”

Writing in response to the research in the same issue of the MJA, Ms Julie Robotham, the health editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, said accuracy and balance were “in the eye of the beholder”. (2)

“The priorities of the public may clash with those of prominent medical groups”, Ms Robotham wrote.

“Sincere and well qualified scientists may hold opposing opinions on some questions. Journalists have to navigate those disagreements and not be beholden to dominant points of view.”

She said the researchers had assumed that there was a definitive standard by which a health news story might be judged. However, they had largely disregarded how this was managed amid journalists’ limitations of space and time.

Another research article published last week in PLoS One also raised concerns over the accuracy of media reporting of health science information for the public. (3)

The researchers, from France and the US, focused on reports about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and sought to determine whether newspapers preferentially reported initial findings and whether they also reported on subsequent studies.

They found that newspapers preferentially echoed initial research, therefore reporting on uncertain findings that were often refuted or attenuated by subsequent studies.

“If this media reporting bias generalizes to health sciences, it represents a major cause of distortion in health science communication”, the authors wrote.

Dr Justin Coleman, president of the Australasian Medical Writers Association and a GP working in Indigenous health, said that in recent years media coverage of new medications and new treatments had improved.

He said at the same time screening and diagnostic testing had become more complex, making it harder for journalists to report.

“The science behind the epidemiology and the public good is complex at the best of times”, he said.

“Most of public are entirely unaware of the potential harms of screening and journalists have a part to play in that when covering screening”, Dr Coleman said.

– Amanda Bryan

1. MJA 2012; 197: 324-326
2. MJA 2012; 197: 327
3. PLoS One 2012; Online 12 September

Posted 17 September 2012

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