Background: News media frequently cover health topics, and may serve as a key source of health information for many people. It has been shown that medical reporting can change the use of health services. Being the target for lobbying and propaganda from various interest groups, journalists are supposed to ask probing questions, verify what sources say, then be selective in what they report. They must separate scientific fact from science fiction. In daily coverage, however, such ideals are often betrayed. Common pitfalls include failing to question claims about treatment effects, hyping findings of basic research, animal studies, or clinical subgroup findings, and misrepresenting health risks, by failing to give a realistic idea of the actual odds involved. Objective: To develop a framework to improve the accuracy and relevance of health/medical reporting in the news media.

Methods/results: Based on well‐documented problems in medical news, and interviews with leading medical journalists, a stepwise model of critical analysis is suggested to avoid common pitfalls in health/medical reporting. Key steps are 1. Is this claim valid? 2. Where is the evidence? 3. Is the evidence strong and relevant?, and 4. How can the news be reported fairly and accurately? For example, when reporting on treatment effects, weak evidence is often spotted by the abscence of a control group, failure to randomize and blind participants to intervention or control group, too few observations, biased samples, major dropout, and short followup. Irrelevant claims often refer to lab values as the only outcome measure, rather than symptoms, quality of life, and survival, which matter the most to patients.

Conclusions: A framework to improve medical reporting has been outlined on the basis of simple scientific and journalistic ground rules, emphasized in evidence‐based medicine and investigative reporting. The framework can be used in future training of medical reporters, and should be tested empirically by evaluating reporters’ critical skills and ability to remain skeptical toward unproven claims – whether in interviews, in press releases, at conferences, in journal supplements, and on the Internet.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Improving medical reporting through stepwise critical analysis

Ragnar Levi   SBU

Background: News media frequently cover health topics, and may serve as a key source of health information for many people. It has been shown that medical reporting can change the use of health services. Being the target for lobbying and propaganda from various interest groups, journalists are supposed to ask probing questions, verify what sources say, then be selective in what they report. They must separate scientific fact from science fiction. In daily coverage, however, such ideals are often betrayed. Common pitfalls include failing to question claims about treatment effects, hyping findings of basic research, animal studies, or clinical subgroup findings, and misrepresenting health risks, by failing to give a realistic idea of the actual odds involved. Objective: To develop a framework to improve the accuracy and relevance of health/medical reporting in the news media.

Methods/results: Based on well‐documented problems in medical news, and interviews with leading medical journalists, a stepwise model of critical analysis is suggested to avoid common pitfalls in health/medical reporting. Key steps are 1. Is this claim valid? 2. Where is the evidence? 3. Is the evidence strong and relevant?, and 4. How can the news be reported fairly and accurately? For example, when reporting on treatment effects, weak evidence is often spotted by the abscence of a control group, failure to randomize and blind participants to intervention or control group, too few observations, biased samples, major dropout, and short followup. Irrelevant claims often refer to lab values as the only outcome measure, rather than symptoms, quality of life, and survival, which matter the most to patients.

Conclusions: A framework to improve medical reporting has been outlined on the basis of simple scientific and journalistic ground rules, emphasized in evidence‐based medicine and investigative reporting. The framework can be used in future training of medical reporters, and should be tested empirically by evaluating reporters’ critical skills and ability to remain skeptical toward unproven claims – whether in interviews, in press releases, at conferences, in journal supplements, and on the Internet.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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