How to read the health news

Medical news is all around us, fed by, among other things, the insatiable needs of the round-the-clock news cycle. Much of the news tends to be either scary or hopefully uplifting. Thus we read of a new cancer threat or a new hazard of daily life, or of some new wonder cure. How good is this news coverage? Can we rely on it for useful information?

Unfortunately, it turns out that much of the news coverage of medical issues is not very good, and some of it is unreliable or misleading. One pernicious difficulty with medical reporting is that medical news, like all news, needs to be news. So, just as dog-bites-man is not newsworthy but man-bites-dog is, medical reporting is skewed toward reporting the scary or the fabulous. What many don’t know is that this tendency is not limited to the popular media; it is also a problem with medical research in general. Scientific journals also exhibit a well-known bias toward publishing positive findings — research that shows something new or some new treatment. A scientist who demonstrates the absence of something, negative findings, has a much more difficult time in getting her work published.

Gary Schwitzer, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota, maintains an interesting and useful website called Health News Review. There he and his colleagues offer you detailed analyses of how the media reports the medical news. It is in many ways a sobering report card, because much of the reporting is not very good. On the other hand, it shows simple and clear ways the reporting could improve. Reading these critiques is also a good way for you to understand yourself how to read and interpret the medical news.


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