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


Background — Studies have persistently shown deficiencies in medical reporting by the mainstream media. We have been monitoring the accuracy and comprehensiveness of medical news reporting in Australia since mid 2004. This analysis of more than 1200 stories in the Australian media compares different types of media outlets and examines reporting trends over time.

Methods and Findings — Between March 2004 and June 2008 1230 news stories were rated on a national medical news monitoring web site, Media Doctor Australia. These covered a variety of health interventions ranging from drugs, diagnostic tests and surgery to dietary and complementary therapies. Each story was independently assessed by two reviewers using ten criteria. Scores were expressed as percentages of total assessable items deemed satisfactory according to a coding guide. Analysis of variance was used to compare mean scores and Fishers exact test to compare proportions. Trends over time were analysed using un-weighted linear regression analysis. Broadsheet newspapers had the highest average satisfactory scores: 58% (95% CI 56-60%), compared with tabloid newspapers and online news outlets, 48% (95% CI 44-52) and 48% (95% CI 46-50) respectively. The lowest scores were assigned to stories broadcast by human interest/current affairs television programmes (average score 33% (95% CI 28-38)). While there was a non- significant increase in average scores for all outlets, a significant improvement was seen in the online news media: a rise of 5.1% (95%CI 1.32, 8.97; P 0.009). Statistically significant improvements were seen in coverage of the potential harms of interventions, the availability of treatment or diagnostic options, and accurate quantification of benefits.

Conclusion — Although the overall quality of medical reporting in the general media remains poor, this study showed modest improvements in some areas. However, the most striking finding was the continuing very poor coverage of health news by commercial current affairs television programs.



Wilson A, Bonevski B, Jones A, Henry D. PLoS One. 2009; 4(3):e4831. Epub 2009 Mar 18.

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