How to assess medical news – reading the message right

How to assess medical news – reading the message right – includes related articles

Many Canadians are intensely curious about medical, health and especially nutritional news. Newspapers devote entire sections to “lifestyle” topics and TV programs regularly cover medical issues. Surveys show that the print and broadcast media are today’s main sources of health information, but all too many people unquestioningly believe what they read, hear or see in the popular press. In fact, many pay less heed, or only half hear, what they’re told in a doctor’s office — perhaps because it’s easier to absorb information at home than in an anxiety-provoking clinical atmosphere. Yet medical news is often poorly reported and simplified to the point of distortion. The news media tend to “humanize” complex subjects with personal anecdotes or dramatized images, sometimes sacrificing accuracy.

People often don’t know how to assess what they hear on the radio, see on TV or read in the popular press, easily jumping to false conclusions based on phrases such as “suggests,” “increases risks” or “contributes to”. In addition, many fail to realize that, on the whole,k journalists don’t regard themselves as educators but as information conveyors who try to report findings as accurately as possible. Yet some of those covering health stories have little or no background knowledge of scientific matters. Many a reporter sent to cover medical issues is diverted from a regular sports, crime or entertainment beat. Moreover, the material handed in by journalists is frequently changed by desk editors, producers and others in charge, to fit available space, adhere to the company’s (TV station’s, newspaper’s or magazine’s) image and to please financial backers. Ignorant of such shortcomings, the public may place unswerving faith in what it reads, hears or sees, misled into believing some “miracle” cure, “amazing” effect or “dangers” lurking in apples.

Even insignificant, unvalidated studies can make the


Any medical study or scientific work, no matter how trivial or irrelevant, can make headlines if it is sensational enough and picked up without critical appraisal. This is particularly true of findings presented before the results have been subjected to critical scrutiny or accepted for publication in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal. Material publicized at news conferences may neglect the detail that is essential for interpreting studies, may be prematurely seized upon as newsworthy and disseminated before the results have been confirmed. Findings are likely to be most reliably reported when medical presenters furnish the full text or reprints of their work so that journalists have a detailed account with which to make the story more accurate and realistic.

Medical scientists sometimes ill equipped to face the press

Medical experts are often unfamiliar with the speed and limits within which complex health stories are packaged. They may not realize the tight time-frame and editorial pressure facing many journalists. Consequently, many scientists bring too little information for reporters covering events. Some clinical presenters not only bring too little back-up material, but fail to make themselves available to the press for answering questions or checking facts. Moreover, many medical professionals are media-shy and will allow incorrect or misleading health stories to go unchallenged. Many simply shrug their shoulders and condemn the media as untrustworthy rogues. “After all, isn’t it just what could be expected? So why bother to correct their mistake(s).” Added communication problems can arise because medical scientists feel uneasy with reporters, don’t know how best to put across their message and are afraid of being misquoted or portraying a poor image. Some fear that their colleagues will view them as publicity-seekers. While being interviewed by newspaper and magazine reporters can create tension, encounters with radio and TV often arouse downright dismay, an unnerving sense of “loss of control”.

High time to bridge the communication gap

For the public to assess health stories better and for medical scientists to get their messages across more reliably, all must consider the constraints of the communication networks. The public must learn to assess what it hears, reads or sees more critically, bearing in mind not only the quality of the information but the limits of the medium in/on which it’s being conveyed. The trick is to use a bit of skepticism in evaluating health news. For their part, medical scientists should familiarize themselves with the way in which the different media put together news items. Health professionals can do much to improve the accuracy of medical stories if they remember the pressure under which many journalists work, with copy often processed at break-neck speed. Working within a tight time-frame reporters can easily distort the facts, especially when trying to render their piece “interesting” or to make the front page. Moreover, items handed in by the journalist/writer may be changed by desk-editors or TV/radio producers and topped by an eye-catching headline — possibly chosen hours before the item was handed in. A health story might be truncated again at the last moment, when key phrases or modifying clauses can be chopped out. Even the most assiduous and responsible of daily news reporters seldom has sufficient time to check and re-check the facts. Medical experts can do much to overcome these drawbacks by capsuling their message in the right way and rehearsing beforehand. Successful medical communicators use a succinct “pyramid style,” stating the key message (the discovery, advance, or results) first, then why the finding is useful, followed by relevant background. They can help to get the message right by automatically translating complex jargon into lay terms, making themselves available for last-minute telephone checking and remembering that many reporters sent to cover medical stories have no scientific background. It’s crucial not to over-sensationalize material which could be misinterpreted in the rush of getting a story out.

Magazine articles, although prepared at a more leisurely pace with more time for checking, may also be cut or changed, often without consulting the writer who prepared it. (The articles in Health News, written within and together with the medical faculty and exhaustively checked by experts, are produced with more leisure and forethought — a luxury not afforded most daily journalists.)

COPYRIGHT 1991 Strategic Inc. Communications Ltd.

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