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Media Distort Health Risks, Say Experts

A report from the Foundation for American Communication’s seminar on covering health risks at Columbia University.

How is the media doing at covering risk? While some publications have become more sophisticated and accurate, the surfeit of scare stories and misleading articles cited at last week's Foundation for American Communication's seminar on covering health risks at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism suggests that most media organizations have a long way to go in giving the public a true picture of which health issues should concern them and which are less worrisome.

Kimberly Thompson, Associate Professor of Risk Analysis and Decision Science at Harvard’s School of Public Health noted early in her presentation that "the good news is that we're living longer," which is something that is rarely mentioned in articles about frightening new discoveries that could present a danger to health. Coverage of risks to children, for example, rarely notes that today's kids have a far longer life expectancy than ever before — but reporters tend to take for granted the false assumption that the modern world holds more dangers for children.

Thompson used as an example the coverage of infants drowning in bathtubs. In the mid-90's, an increase in the use of infant bathing seats coincided with a rise in infant drowning deaths. The media assumed that this correlation was causal because common sense would lead one to believe that parents would be more confident about leaving a baby alone in the bath for a few minutes in a seat; but, in fact, there was no connection. For reasons that are still unknown, parents were generally taking more risks in leaving their babies alone in the bath, and it was very difficult to get the media to focus on this risk, rather than the "news" about the increased use of bathing seats.

Thompson also discussed the history of vaccination and how, as diseases eradicated by vaccination fade from memory, the risks associated with vaccines become more frightening to parents. She noted the rise in cases of measles associated with reduced vaccination rates due fears that the MMR vaccine could cause autism, and discussed how the media paid a great deal of attention to the theories of Andrew Wakefield about the autism/vaccine connection.

Far less coverage, however, was given to the repudiation of the paper he published on the subject by his co-authors, and to the discovery of his undisclosed connections with those who were suing vaccine makers, which caused the journal which published it to say it would not have done so had it known of the conflict of interest.

Kay Dickersin, Director, Center for Clinical Trials, Johns Hopkins University, reviewed how clinical trials can be understood and covered, noting that many trials which are started remain unpublished, and that this can bias the scientific literature.  She also noted that only 60% of abstracts presented at meetings—which are often given big coverage in the media—result in peer-reviewed publication.

Dickersin discussed other forms of bias and also urged reporters to include information on both absolute and relative risk. Relative risk numbers can make a story sexier and scarier: for example, while a hypothetical medication might double the risk of heart disease (the relative risk), if that means the risk goes from 1 in 100,000 to 2 in 100,000 (the absolute risk), it might not really be something for patients to fret over.

Andrew Branca, Senior Vice President and Group Director of Drug Safety Risk Management, Cambridge Healthtech Associates, and a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry, closed the seminar with information on how new technology is making risks related to drugs easier to discover but not necessarily easier to manage.

He cited the recent spate of FDA withdrawals of drugs from the market,  noting that the risks of Vioxx, for example, may have been acceptable for the patients for whom the drug was originally intended (those who couldn't take other painkillers) but were not acceptable for the larger population for whom the drug was actually prescribed.

Overall, the seminar repeatedly emphasized the importance of placing risks in context, and as STATS has repeatedly documented, that’s something that most journalists repeatedly fail to do.

Maia Szalavitz is the author of "Help At Any Cost:  How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids" Riverhead, 2006 and author, with Dr. Bruce D. Perry, "The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook," which will be released by Basic Books in 2007.

Further reading
For a primer on how to understand and report the latest health scare, check out STATS “How to Evaluate Health Risks.”

For background on phthalates – which are currently being reported as a health risk in cosmetics, children’s toys and "new car smell" – read STATS detailed investigation “Toy Tantrums - The Debate Over the Safety of Phthalates," and how badly misleading recent coverage of these risks has been – "Toxic Makeup = Deformed Genitals?" and "It’s the Exhaust Fumes, Stupid."