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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