Part 1 of An Introduction to a Sensible Medicine Series
There is nearly universal interest in health and longevity. We want to learn about our bodies and our well-being. Advances in these fields are important to us, and accurate and informative news coverage of them is vital. Having a public that understands the excitement, nuance, and uncertainty of the science of diet, exercise, wellness, and medicine is critical.
And yet, far too often, media coverage of health and medical science feels like a missed opportunity. The chance to inform, educate, and challenge people is lost to uncritical and incurious reporting. Readers, listeners, and viewers are deprived of the chance to become educated participants in, and savvy consumers of, their healthcare.
This missed opportunity occurs despite the fact that most health and science journalists are trained, talented, and well-meaning. Their commitment to finding the truth and overcoming competing interests is real. Sadly, it is the sensational, unreliable, and emotional content that garners most of the attention.
The fault lies not just with a minority of health journalists but also with the authors of their source material. Journalists often report on press releases, authored by university staff. Most university press officers and science communicators are honest stewards of the public’s interest. They promote the important work going on at their medical centers and foster the joy of science that attracts a new generation into the field. Yet, here too, a few are more interested in boosting their institutions’ brands by promoting flawed news.
Similarly, news stories about the medical sciences and healthcare often get it wrong when they report on research studies. This happens even though most researchers perform careful, honest, and transparent scholarship. These are folks who work to purge their writing of hype and spin. They are circumspect and cautious in all of their communications. But, unfortunately, there are researchers who hype or exaggerate their findings and promote the sensational, rather than the plausible, interpretation of their data. This is where the seeds of bad health and science reporting are sown.
This is an introduction to what we hope will be a continuing series of posts in which we’ll deconstruct the media landscape, to explain why so much health news falls short.
What is Churnalism?
Churnalism has a formal definition; it is the practice of taking a press release and reformatting it into a news story. It is a pejorative term associated with cheap and lazy journalism. We are not interested in this sort of churnalism, though it does exist in the health media landscape. Classic churnalism is too easy a target.
We extend the meaning of churnalism from direct reporting of press releases to the careless, incurious reporting of poorly done biomedical research. This brand of churnalism trades the real story -- why this study is unimportant or proves something other than it contends -- for the easy headline. The origins of churnalism go beyond the journalists to the research itself. Bad methods, inaccurate measurements, poorly chosen outcomes, flawed analyses all lead to spurious conclusions.
There was a sign that hung on the wall of the City News Bureau of Chicago that famously read, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” The best journalists do just that; no matter what they are told or who tells them, they carefully consider the story, look for the holes in the argument, check the sources – hell, some of them even meet Mark Felt in a parking garage in the middle of the night. We respect our journalists for their dogged skepticism and treat those who uncover important stories as heroes. In a similar way that the health of a democracy relies on the skills of public journalists, the health of the population depends on the skills of health journalists. A curious journalist pushes further than an incurious one.
Granted, not all writing for a public audience needs to be of the Woodward and Bernstein ilk. We all read for various reasons: to be entertained, to learn, to pass the time. Very often one reads an article because it just seems interesting and has no expectation of it changing her life. The problem with health news is that although you begin reading an article just out of curiosity, its contents may actually end up affecting your health. One might happen across an article and think, “Huh, look at this, it looks like runners who land on their forefoot have fewer injuries than those who land on their heels.” The reader starts thinking, “maybe I should run differently.” Other articles leave readers wondering if they should eat differently, spend their leisure time in new ways, or start new medications. These decisions can have a real impact on their health (and wallets).
We are motivated to write these posts because we believe it is critically important for consumers of health information to truly understand what they are reading. We have spent years learning to read the medical literature and have taught a generation of physicians to do the same. Reading lazy, uninformed, interpretations of a study is downright offensive to us. For our clinical work, we spend hours analyzing clinical trials published in medical journals that may affect the way we care for patients. Countless times, we have been intrigued by the promise of a title, or even been tempted to adopt a practice after skimming an article, only to recognize, on closer analysis, that the study is flawed and changing practice based on the results would be a mistake – could actually undermine the health of our patients. We expect that healthcare journalists, those whose job it is to interpret news about the medical sciences and healthcare for the public, should work equally hard.
Part II will follow tomorrow.