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Rx: Take health news with a grain of salt

It would be nice to think that you could trust journalists to deliver the straight scoop when it comes to covering health news.

But sometimes we don't. Sometimes we exaggerate good news, presenting a new drug as having more capacity to cure than it really does. Other times we overemphasize bad news, painting grim pictures that scare the bejeezus out of our readers.

Most of us don't do these things on purpose; I'm guessing that most of us aren't even aware we're getting things wrong when we do.

Journalists' getting health stories wrong is the subject of an editorial published online November 20 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The succinct article notes two illustrative examples of major health stories gone awry.

Journalists covering trial results of a new anti-cancer drug,olaparib, called it "the most important cancer breakthrough of the decade," the editorial notes, even though the study was uncontrolled and very preliminary. Both are conditions that considerably weaken that "most important" claim.

In another instance, the findings of a medical journal article about women's alcohol consumption and their risk of cancer were misrepresented in an alarmist way, with the headlines screaming that a drink a day raises women's breast cancer risk. What the journalists failed to mention, the editorial points out, is that the absolute increase in risk was quite small, a difference between 2 percent risk of getting breast cancer in seven years for the lightest drinkers and 2.6 percent for the heaviest drinkers.

The editorial doesn't place all the blame on health reporters. Its authors acknowledge that medical journals sometimes fail to present all the details about study limitations and such, so journalists don't have all the facts to work with. And press releases announcing new research findings may omit key elements, too.

But the editorialists don't just point fingers: They put together this guide aimed at helping journalists -- and the general public -- interpret and understand medical studies. I hope you'll join me in bookmarking the document.

I think most journalists will appreciate the help. I know I do.

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By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  November 30, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  General Health  
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Next: Rx for Stress: La-Z-Boy


This seems almost like a committment from the authors to try to get the facts straight before shooting off the latest scoop. If so, I'll be the first to toast to their health, and accept all the increasted cancer risk that gives me.

Posted by: byte1 | November 30, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Next time you see a major health story break, try looking at 4-5 major news outlets and see how they report it.

You will find that many of the outlets all use the same news release as a backbone, with very little actual reporting. This is especially true of smaller organizations.

Of course, "The CheckUp" bloggers don't do this.


Posted by: SteveParkerMD | November 30, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Please help people understand research and data, instead of undermining it with the goal of being "objective." I read so many articles about the new mammogram guidelines, but each one contained a couple of quotes from individuals who were upset. Those anecdotes might serve to "balance" the article, but they make readers think that two people's experiences are equal to the dataset of thousands of cases that the researchers used.

Posted by: drl97 | November 30, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

We should take any science or health news with a grain of salt, including Al Gore's infamous hockey stick and reports of scientific medical research that show vitamins and herbs are worthless.

I cringe when I hear reports that all the leading scientists agree that man made global warming imperils our planet with rising sea levels and other tragedies.

Climate researchers at the University of East Anglia in the UK have admitted throwing away much of the raw temperature data on which their predictions of global warming are based.

It means that other scientists are not able to check basic calculations said to show a long-term rise in temperature over the past 150 years. Scientific peer review is a farce. It is terrible that Copenhagen, one of the loveliest cities on earth, is hosting a meeting in December on climate fraud.

Pharmaceutical companies are notorious for manipulating and massaging scientific data to support the approval of dangerous new medicines that kill thousands before they are eventually pulled from the market.

Posted by: alance | November 30, 2009 6:02 PM | Report abuse

I have always been somewhat skeptical of reading news aretiles whether in the Washington Post or the Harvard health letter or anywhere else. People must realize that all these articles are the creation of people. All people want the product of their work to be important and appreciated by other people. Even though journalist, doctors, scientist and researchers are all well educated people they tend to not be too much smarter or dumber than the average person anywhere. No matter what school they attended or what classes they took or how long they went to school half of them graduated in the top half and half in the borrom half of their class. When a new medicine, medical practice or new technology such as a new kind of TV comes along I always waited a few years to see how it turns out. I have never been disappointed in being cautious.

Posted by: OldCoot1 | November 30, 2009 8:04 PM | Report abuse

All you have to do is look back on the frenzy that the media (and government)created with the swine flu hype.

Posted by: GrainofSalt1 | November 30, 2009 8:56 PM | Report abuse

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