The pitfalls of healthcare journalism

Medical research is a conversation between the new and the old. What I mean by that is the findings of new studies need to be compared to previous ones, because most times the reason for doing the research in the first place is to answer questions or test theories raised by previous research. Understanding the historical context of a particular research finding is vital. If you don’t know how a particular new finding compares to older ones you won’t understand the importance of the research. Unfortunately, journalists are less and less inclined to give readers that context when they write about the newest and shiniest medical research. The result is public confusion, and it leads to misleading headlines.

Journalists also like conflict, so they tend to write their stories from the angle that a particular medical finding contradicts a previous one, even when it really doesn’t. Journalists also want to write about unusual, unexpected things. As the saying goes, dog bites man isn’t news — man bites dog is hot stuff.

The result of the Babel of medical journalism is that many people just ignore it all, assuming (not unreasonably) that another study may come out the next year contradicting whatever exciting finding this year brings. Fat is bad! No, fat is not so bad! Coffee is bad! Except when it isn’t! And so on.

There is an excellent editorial in a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine by Susan Dentzer, a respected health journalist and editor of Health Affairs, about the pitfalls of all of this and how it might be improved. She describes the problem this way: “Journalists sometimes feel the need to play carnival barkers, hyping a story to draw attention to it. This leads them to frame a story as new or different — depicting study results as counterintuitive or a break from the past — if they want it to be featured prominently or even accepted by an editor at all.”

Her solution is pretty simple — journalists need to supply readers with the context, the shades of grey, that are part of interpreting the results of any research study. I don’t really expect that to happen much. The demands of the 24/7 news cycle are too overwhelming. Readers, though, can read more critically, which is one reason I’ve been posting in this blog about how to interpret the validity of research data.

Gary Schwitzer, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism, keeps an excellent blog about these issues. I check it frequently (he has useful things to say about the Dentzer piece). You can also find a link to it on the right on my blogroll list.


One response to “The pitfalls of healthcare journalism”

  1. Press Release: A Well Designed Sales Pitch?

    Those who release and create press releases, that are intended to offer information that is authentic and newsworthy, are possibly in collusion with various sources of the mass media who receive these announcements from others with commercial interests in mind. Such sponsors often instruct such media outlets with mandated authoritarian nuances, such as the press release that they created will bit be altered in any way.
    Of course, the sponsor and creator of such a press release does this in order to promote the sponsor itself, as well as its products. By doing so, they are allowed the freedom to embellish if not fabricate what may be annotated on their created press release.
    These well- constructed statements are meticulously composed and customized before they are issued to targeted editors and contacts at mass media publication locations. The sponsor also has been known to direct the location and time of the release of their press release completely un-reviewed by such a media source. As this is done, the mass media outlets are again instructed on how to present their completed statements, as well as are given instructions once again not to alter these press releases in any way, it has been said.
    Press releases are presently a form of public relations often utilized for those companies who create what is supposed to be an attempt to express their products that they wish to convince readers that such products are innovative or newsworthy. Press releases, historically, have been created and released to inform the readers by adding insight and related information for them regarding a particular topic that was typically complete and balanced. Today, they seem to be more or less an annotative commercial with press releases generated by corporations in particular, so it seems.
    Unfortunately, and presently, press releases are often embellished, biased, and incomplete with deliberate intent in order to benefit the creator of these documents, who again develops them solely to increase awareness and usage of their products that they promote with their business, which they want to be viewed as favorable with a positive image to the public. One could suggest that the mass media who receives these press releases are transformed into mass front groups who perhaps coercively offer third party legitimacy for the content of the press release as they release this information to their readers.
    The often notable if not intentional flaws at times are numerous within such press releases that reflect reckless disregard for the readers, the American Public, who believe that what they are reading is honest and complete. This, however, is not the case is certain situations.
    An example is an anonymous and anonymous press release posted on the Medical News Today website ( that is dated in March of 2006. The title: “Cymbalta Safely and Effectively Treats core anxiety symptoms associated with generalized anxiety disorder.” Clearly, this title itself includes words associated with relief or elation, which are subjective and not objective elements which would clearly be more appropriate, according to some, if the press release was created to inform the reader, one could say.
    The first paragraph of this press release repeats the results mentioned in the title of this article, but also states Cymbalta offers relief of painful symptoms associated with anxiety, as well as improved functional impairment- also claimed to be associated with anxiety in this press release. These conclusions are speculative at best, as these inferences appear to be unexamined by others regarding the benefits claimed to exist with Cymbalta as illustrated in this press release.
    Cymbalta was not approved by the FDA for anxiety or any of the symptoms associated with this condition at the time of this press release. In fact, Cymbalta was not filed with the FDA for this speculated new indication for anxiety that was desired by Eli Lilly until May of 2006. By definition, this press release may possibly be off-label promotion as well as misbranding of Cymbalta that was performed overtly in this manner of the press release, one may speculate.
    As one continues to read this press release, testimonials were intentionally created and inserted into this press release that illustrated results they hope are impactful to the reader regarding Cymbalta. This testimonial was from the lead author, who expanded the claims made initially with utilizing various medical terms, which was followed by this person’s passionate optimism about the great potential of Cymbalta based on this remarkable study.
    This study, by the way, was to be addressed in further detail at a National Anxiety meeting some weeks after this press release was announced to the public on this website. The second testimonial was Eli Lilly’s Medical Advisor expressing his elation about what the lead author just stated, followed by how much he was encouraged by these results that will benefit so many others that have these debilitating medical conditions. Of course, profit forecasts regarding Cymbalta remarkably were not stated in this press release.
    What is not included in this particular press release was any clear statements regarding the disadvantages and adverse if not toxic events associated those who take Cymbalta. Reactions from Cymbalta users include discontinuation syndrome at times, when the user stops taking this medication, which I understand can be quite devastating for the one experiencing this syndrome. Furthermore acts of suicide and suicidal ideation have been frequently associated with those who take Cymbalta as well. There have been apparent lack of efficacy suggestions by others who have taken Cymbalta. Basically, anything that may be considered negative aspects about this drug were not annotated in this particular press release as it should have been for fair balance that is standard in the pharmaceutical industry and health care journalism. The staff involved with the release and publication of such press releases as this one described should perhaps be more informed on what not to accept and what to present regarding these issues addressed.
    As with any reporting by the media, objectivity and thorough completeness of the topic discussed in a press release is a necessary requirement with any publishing that is potentially exposed to so many others- more so with such medical issues in particular.

    “The public has a lot at stake, and the media has a responsibility always to be aware of the source of information and the conflicts those sources might have when they report the results of clinical research. People who have financial stake in the results of clinical research can well be biased in the way research is conducted, in the way they report it, and what they say about it when interviewed by the media.” – Arnold Relman, former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine

    Dan Abshear

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