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False Hopes, Unwarranted Fears: The Trouble with Medical News Stories

Posted Sep 18 2010 7:23pm

The PLoS Medicine Editors

On April 26, 2007, ABC World News, the American Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship television news program, aired a “good news” story about a new test for prostate cancer. Against a background of a dramatic graphic showing that 1.6 million American men undergo prostate biopsy each year, the presenter announced: “Researchers at Johns Hopkins say they have developed a more accurate blood screening test.” The story was based on a new study examining the performance of early prostate cancer antigen-2 as a serum marker for prostate cancer. Unfortunately, ABC failed to disclose one crucial fact: the principal investigator of this study receives a share of the royalty sales of the test and is a paid consultant to the test’s manufacturer.

This failure was one of a litany of weaknesses in the story. There was no discussion, for example, of the scientific evidence showing that the test was “more accurate” than existing screening tests or of the uncertain benefits and proven harms of prostate cancer screening. In this month’s PLoS Medicine, Gary Schwitzer of the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication highlights this ABC broadcast as an example of particularly poor health reporting. Schwitzer publishes an online project called ( ) that evaluates and grades media stories about new health interventions, notifying journalists of their grades. The project builds on other initiatives that monitor the quality of health reporting, such as the Australian Media Doctor Web site ( ) and the United Kingdom’s Behind the Headlines project ( ). BBC News, The Guardian, and other news organizations covered a recent randomized controlled trial in PLoS Medicine on the effects of stopping or continuing antipsychotic drugs in Alzheimer disease, and Behind the Headlines posted a detailed assessment of the science behind the coverage. uses a 10-point grading scale. The rating criteria include whether a story adequately quantifies the benefits of an intervention, appraises the supporting evidence, and gives information on the sources of a story and the sources’ competing interests. On this scale, the ABC story received a grade of just two. Based on the ratings of 500 stories from the highest circulation newspapers and news magazines, the most widely used wire service (Associated Press), and the three most popular US television networks, the report card from is grim. Most stories (62%–77%) failed to adequately address costs, harms, benefits, the quality of evidence, and the existence of other treatment options. The trouble with distorted journalistic reports, say David Ransohoff and Richard Ransohoff, is that they can generate false hopes and unwarranted fears. Accurate, balanced, and complete health reporting is crucial, argues Schwitzer, so that “health care consumers are properly informed and ready to participate in decision making about their health care”.

click here to continue reading this article from PLoS Medicine

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