Date Published: May 27, 2008
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Abstract: ThePLoS Medicine Editors discuss the current state of health news reporting, and what steps can be taken to improve its quality.
Partial Text: On April 26, 2007, ABC World News, the American Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship television news program, aired a “good news” story about a new test for prostate cancer . Against a background of a dramatic graphic showing that 1.6 million American men undergo prostate biopsy each year, the presenter announced: “Researchers at Johns Hopkins say they have developed a more accurate blood screening test.” The story was based on a new study examining the performance of early prostate cancer antigen-2 as a serum marker for prostate cancer . Unfortunately, ABC failed to disclose one crucial fact: the principal investigator of this study receives a share of the royalty sales of the test and is a paid consultant to the test’s manufacturer .
When it comes to the quality of health reporting, why is the bar set so low? One problem is that today’s health reporters may have been covering crime last week and politics the week before. They have rarely been trained to understand the complexities of health research. For example, in her survey of 165 reporters in the US (response rate 69.6%), Melinda Voss found that 83% (96/115) had received no training in interpreting health statistics, and a third said that understanding key health issues was “often” or “nearly always” difficult . While there are certainly studies in specialist medical journals that will be difficult for many people to grasp, nevertheless there may be some value in establishing a core set of scientific competencies for all health reporters. Indeed, the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Statement of Principles states that health reporters should “understand the process of medical research in order to report accurately” (http://www.healthjournalism.org/secondarypage-details.php?id=56).
When a health story gets hyped, it is all too easy for medical journal editors to deny any responsibility. The reality, of course, is that journal editors themselves are the third party in the “complicit collaboration”—the journal’s press release is the usual mechanism for linking the researcher to the journalist. Medical journals issue press releases about their upcoming studies partly because media publicity drives readers to the journal and builds brand recognition. A bland press release may be less likely to get your journal and the study noticed. Not surprisingly, a content analysis of journal press releases by Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz found that these releases were themselves prone to exaggeration ; we suspect that press releases from research institutions and funding agencies may be equally as prone. Woloshin and Schwartz argue that all journal press releases should include: (1) a section putting results into context, (2) a section for the study’s limitations, (3) a statement of the study authors’ competing interests, and (4) a summary of the quantitative results expressed using absolute rather than just relative measures.
Schwitzer’s alarming report card of the trouble with medical news stories is thus a wake-up call for all of us involved in disseminating health research—researchers, academic institutions, journal editors, reporters, and media organizations—to work collaboratively to improve the standards of health reporting. The good news is that there are signs of change. Two years ago, Ray Moynihan and David Henry guest-edited a special PLoS Medicine theme issue on disease mongering (http://collections.plos.org/plosmedicine/diseasemongering-2006.php), the corporate creation of new diseases in order to sell treatments. As they report in this month’s issue, over the last two years there has been a growing number of high-profile articles on disease mongering, suggesting that “scepticism is building within the mainstream media” . The Wall Street Journal, for example, recently ran a story on a new drug for restless legs syndrome under the headline “How Glaxo Marketed a Malady to Sell a Drug” .