Can you trust the news media to tell you what you need to know about your health? Not so much, says Gary Schwitzer, an associate professor of journalism and mass communication who reviewed 500 health news stories that ran in 50 major U.S. media outlets over 22 months.
Schwitzer and his colleagues found that news stories about treatments, tests, products, and procedures often omit information about costs, benefits and harms, other treatment options, and potential conflicts of interest. The results, says Schwitzer, can be unnecessary fear-mongering and consumer demand for unproven therapies.
One common fault is citing only relative risk (the risk comparison between two different groups) as opposed to absolute risk (actual probability). For example, ABC's "Good Morning America" reported that breast cancer patients with relatively low blood levels of vitamin D were 94 percent more likely to have their cancer spread and 73 percent more likely to die than those with high levels of vitamin D. But nothing was said about an individual's overall chances that a cancer would spread or cause death.
As for cost, Schwitzer says, "It's unforgivable that more than 75 percent of health journalism articles ... failed to address cost."
Although he says that we're also getting some of the best health journalism ever, "the valleys between the peaks may undo a lot of the good by driving consumers to demand unproven therapies."
Schwitzer's work was published in the online journal PLoS Medicine in May. He publishes a Web site reviewing medical information at HealthNewsReview.org.
PHOTO: Kelly MacWILLIAMS