Science has proven that eating processed meats is ‘as bad as smoking’. Men must watch their tea consumption or increase prostate cancer’s chances, while a daily aspirin pill ‘cuts odds’ of dying from breast cancer by one-fifth. Or so the media headlines lead us to believe.
The actual research article behind the aspirin claim did not find a statistically significant effect of aspirin on breast cancer deaths, with authors concluding that ‘reductions in mortality are shown in colon cancer, probably in prostate and possibly in breast…’. So, how did that finding morph into a headline claiming a 20 per cent reduction in breast cancer mortality? Who is to blame for such a distortion?
Is it the media? If so, they are not the only culprits behind spurious health science claims, as C3 Collaborating for Health and the Royal Society of Medicine revealed at our recent event, ‘Behind the headlines: Analysing confusing media messages and food policy’. Attendees heard presentations from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the former editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), and Public Health England (PHE). Speakers not only highlighted the media’s role in publishing dubious health claims, but also declared that health professionals can be complicit in these outrageous headlines.
‘Stories sell better than facts’
We first heard the views of Dr Vivek Muthu, non-executive chair of EIU Healthcare, who explained that the media publish extreme health claims because readers want to read compelling stories, not facts and statistics. This is why the same food can be reported as a lifesaver one day and as cancer-causing the next.
How many readers of the Hippocratic Post would agree with Dr Richard Smith who argued that the media often gives poorly presented, inaccurate information with little evidence backing up claims? Or what about Tim Rycroft, (from the FDF,) who said the media’s biggest and ‘powerfully misleading’ error is the failure to contextualise studies? He argued journalists misrepresent results by not mentioning studies’ subjects (mice) or insufficient sample sizes, or by not framing the results in terms of individuals’ absolute and relative risks.
Media are not the only ones to blame
While it seems convenient to assign all blame to the media, health professionals should not feel superior. As Dr Muthu commented at the meeting, health research has a foolish over-reliance on statistics, which ‘can make truth out of nonsense’; the media and the public forget that science is not about collecting facts but about reducing uncertainty because facts will change.
Summarising complex scientific studies is difficult, especially when trying to please editors concerned with word counts and clickbait headlines. Journalists also attempt fairness by reporting all sides of the argument – even when there is overwhelming evidence favouring one side. Health-science journal editors must take more responsibility for their publications’ inaccurate findings. And health guidelines become a political theatre where stories are politicised and diverted from their intended messaging.
What media and health professionals can do
Health professionals can help the media take on more responsible health reporting. Instead of our current, ineffective tactic of reacting to sensationalist stories, we must proactively engage the media. We must overcome our uninspiring and unoriginal press releases. We need to become more sophisticated in our health messaging and find new, interesting angles to tell the story, while also maintaining accuracy. Health professionals need to personalise messages to individual readers versus the population. To optimise accuracy, we should plan our media materials before releasing health information, and brief the media and stakeholders in advance to maximise their time to prepare a response.
As for journalists and the media, we ask that you take the time to do proper research on your story and look into the studies behind the press releases and health claims. Visit NHS Choices ‘Behind the headlines’ online service for examples of unbiased analysis of studies behind past health news.
Ultimately, both the media and we, the health professionals, need to remember this: what we allow to be published has a profound impact on what individuals believe and do in regards to their health, which can have deleterious consequences.