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Media reporting of health interventions: signs of improvement but major problems persist

March 18, 2009 Toronto

Researchers from the University of Newcastle, Australia and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) in Toronto have published the most comprehensive study on the quality of medical news stories yet undertaken. After studying more than 1,200 health news stories published by Australian media outlets over the course of four years, the research team has concluded that despite improvement in some areas, the media are not meeting the needs of the public for accurate, comprehensive and unbiased information on new medical treatments. The report is published in the latest edition of the journal PLoS ONE (http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0004831).

The report describes medical news stories evaluated by the media monitoring website ‘Media Doctor’ (www.mediadoctor.org.au). Each article was assessed against 10 criteria, which included how well the story covered the benefits, harms and costs of a new treatment, whether the journalist consulted an impartial expert in the field and whether the article relied heavily on a media release, particularly if it came from a commercial source.

PhD student Amanda Wilson and her co-authors—Dr. Billie Bonevski, Professor Alison Jones and professor David Henry—found that between 2004 and 2008 there were small but statistically significant improvements in coverage of the potential harms of interventions, the availability of new treatments and accurate quantification of their benefits. The biggest improvement was seen in online news services. However, Wilson notes that despite this “The most striking finding was the very poor coverage of health news by commercial current affairs television programs. Sensational coverage of unproven and improbable treatments for trivial health problems (e.g., cellulite) is a standard fare for these networks. However, it is more serious when they start to promote unlikely remedies for more serious health problems such as cancer or behavioural problems in children.“

Wilson says the media play a very important role in influencing public health behaviours. While journalists generally aim to provide accurate, unbiased and complete information, they are inundated with sometimes conflicting health information from companies, researchers, institutions, the government and consumers. They also work to very short deadlines. Historically, journalists have been blamed for inaccuracies or shortcomings in health reporting. However, the Media Doctor team says: ‘’Researchers and medical journal editors need to provide balanced and accurate media releases on published studies, designed to inform journalists, and through them the public, rather than generate a high media profile for the journal or the institution.’’

Media Doctor Australia is one of a number of media monitoring websites internationally. Media Doctor web sites exist in Canada (www.mediadoctor.ca and Hong Kong, www.mediadoctor.hk) and in the USA the equivalent site is Health News Review (www.healthnewsreview.org).

FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT:

  • Australian media - Amanda Wilson 0407456642
  • North American media - David Henry 416.371.6947

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