Chapter 20: Healthier reporting using Information Therapy
Prateik Roy, a reporter for a tabloid, reads a recent study on the internet that suggests a possible cure for cancer that is currently in the testing phase. However, he misinterprets the entire meaning of the study and writes an article titled CURE FOR CANCER FOUND. How often have you picked up a tabloid, flipped to the medical section, and seen such a headline, only to be disappointed when you read the rest of the article? We live in the Breaking News era where everything is sensationalized by the media. How do we ensure that health reporters benefit from Information Therapy too?
We all rely on the media for our daily fix of the latest news. While making sense of the share prices in the financial section of a newspaper is fairly straightforward, how does one interpret or understand medical stories? We are now awash in a flood of health information, and barely a day goes by without a report of a spectacular new cure for a formerly incurable illness. However, many people find themselves increasingly frustrated in the face of the barrage of confusing and contradictory health advice. Unfortunately, the media is often guilty of oversimplifying or exaggerating results. Moreover, headline writers may focus on an angle that gives a distorted impression, which often means that facts are sacrificed for greater circulation figures.
Many reasons can be attributed to the somewhat shoddy standard of reporting in the mainstream press with respect to medical matters. Editors crave for stuff which is new, and doctors and hospitals are only too happy to boast about their latest gadgets and gizmos. Reporters are often not specialized enough to understand the technicalities of medicine. They do not do their homework properly, and this leads to misreporting, a common occurrence in India. It is a sad fact that although most newspapers and magazines have a battery of expert financial reporters, few have full-time, knowledgeable health medical reporters.
Information Therapy for reporters can help to ensure accurate news reporting. Reporters need access to reliable updated information, so that they can make sense of the stories that doctors and hospitals present to them. This will allow them to separate the wheat from the chaff, and interpret the story for their readers, so they can give them a fair and balanced perspective.
A very interesting study (https://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000323) showed that it does matter who writes the news stories that cover the benefits and harms of healthcare interventions. Stories written by specialist health journalists working for a single media outlet were superior to those written by other groups. Traditional broadsheet newspapers scored highest and commercial human interest programs consistently returned the poorest scores. It is presumed that these differences reflect not only the professional skills of journalists, but also editorial policies that dictate the target audience, the writing style (favouring human interest over evidence), the length of the article, and the extent to which it serves particular sectoral interests (e.g., a patient support group or identifiable victims of a disease). These findings are not surprising, but some of the differences were large and likely to translate into flawed information for consumers, with an adverse effect on health literacy.
In recent years, sites that monitor the completeness and accuracy of medical news reporting have been established in Australia (https://www.mediadoctor.org.au), Canada (https://www.mediadoctor.ca), Hong Kong (https://www.mediadoctor.hk), and the U.S. (https://www.healthnewsreview.org). These sites use the following criteria to judge the quality of the reporting:
- Reported on the novelty and availability of the intervention;
- Described any treatment or diagnostic options available;
- Avoided elements of disease mongering;
- Reported on evidence supporting the intervention;
- Quantified the benefits, harms, and costs of the intervention;
- Consulted with independent expert sources; and
- Did not rely heavily on a media release.
A good journalist will ensure that all important information associated with new treatments are reported, including benefits, harms, costs, adverse effects, and availability. This is not an easy task for many reasons. There are constraints of space, which is always at a premium in a newspaper. It can be very hard to provide sufficient context about medical minutiae in 600 words! Also, doctors are often not very articulate; and because they love using medical jargon, it can be hard for the reporter to translate this into terms which a layperson can understand. Deadline pressures make a bad situation worse as it can be hard to find knowledgeable doctors who are willing to provide background information and context. Finally, competitive pressures amongst journalists means that they try to outscoop each other . and this is something which PR agencies sometimes take undue advantage of, so as to get their stories into the media, whether or not they actually deserve to be printed. Promoters of new therapies employ professional public relations companies to prepare press releases that over-emphasise the benefits and underplay the potential harms of new products. Lazy reporters compound the problem and some simply hand in the press release as a story, so they dont have to do any fact finding or research as all. Finally, editors sometimes prefer doctor-bashing stories that portray doctors in a bad light, and this is a line reporters are often forced to toe.
It is possible to improve standards of health reporting. One of the best ways of doing this is to ensure that heath reporting is given the importance it deserves. Health stories should only be done by full-time health reporters who must have easy access to Information Therapy. Newspapers should ensure that their reporters can easily access the full text of medical books and journals, so they can refer to primary, reliable sources of medical knowledge. Even if health reporters are not doctors, they need to acquire the skills to understand and critically assess the medical literature. Armed with this background information, they can write more accurate and meaningful stories, and not get intimidated my medical experts who use incomprehensible medical terms. It would also be useful to ensure that every health story has a link to an online version. This way, even if the print space is limited, interested readers can go online, where the reporter can add more depth and background to his piece, to ensure that it does not get misinterpreted.
The truth is that the lay press plays a crucial role in communicating health messages and notifying the public about research findings and new treatments. Members of the public often base their opinions on what they have read or heard in the press, and subsequently, press cuttings are presented to doctors and become the basis of discussions about treatment decisions. Often, doctors themselves may first hear about developments through the media, and it is the medias responsibility that the reporting is balanced and backed with credible research. Sensationalizing of insignificant stories simply to generate better circulation figures or higher TRP ratings should be avoided. Since health stories can have such a major impact on readers, reporters must stick to serious reporting, if they want to be taken seriously! Information Therapy helps them to do just that.