SIRC has long campaigned for more accurate and balanced reporting of health and science issues. We have paid special attention to the sensational scaremongering in which many of our national newspapers engage. Fear sells – and newspaper editors know that. But they leave their readers confused and induce many unnecessary and irrational anxieties.
There is, however, an aspect of media distortion which is of equal concern to us – the raising of false hopes – the medical 'breakthroughs' which do not exist or the promises of 'miracle' cures which are merely misguided optimism.
The Los Angeles Times has brought this into sharp focus with two articles written by David Shaw – the first Medical Miracles or Misguided Media, and the second Medical Journals Exercise Clout in News Coverage. Both should be compulsory reading for all journalists engaged in communicating science and health matters to the public. The second article should also be placed on the desk of every journal editor as a reminder of the special responsibilities they have for setting a fair and balanced agenda for the media to follow.
Shaw provides us with an incisive analysis of where the media fail in their duty to inform – to provide readers with unbiased access to the knowledge which they need in order to make informed decisions about how they choose to lead their lives and how they treat their bodies. And he doesn't mince his words – even attacking his own newspaper:
"It sometimes seems as if there are Page 1 stories, television news reports and magazine cover stories almost daily on medical breakthroughs--new treatments for everything from the flu, obesity and the common cold to cancer, AIDS and heart disease. In the last two weeks alone, Newsweek published a cover story on new hope for Alzheimer's patients, the Los Angeles Times published three Page 1 stories on new treatments for AIDS and New York magazine ran a cover story touting not only "a global conquering of cancer in five to 10 years" but "breakthroughs in pain management, AIDS research, heart surgery, and more."
The media, of course, want stories which catch the eye – encourage people to pick up their paper and read it. Factual headlines over balanced stories which suggest that a new drug may be useful at some time in the future in combating, say, bowel cancer, in a modest way, in some cases, is not the stuff that journalists have been trained to provide. But there must come a time when excessive, unfounded hyping, often amounting to nothing more than cruel hoaxes, is curtailed. David Shaw may, hopefully, have done something to encourage just that 'breakthrough'.