12 September 2012

Unhealthful News 219 - Why the news is so unhealthful

Two interesting articles just came across my desk (both h/t @themorrigan1972).  One is a study that shockingly! revealed that a lot of the hype in science news reporting has its origins in the hype in the paper's abstract or press release.  This is a good summary of the study.

Unfortunately, there is some suggestion that this lets the news writers off the hook.  But it really offers them no excuse.  Are they really going to argue, "oh, gee, it seems like someone is putting out information with hype and spin -- what can I, a mere newspaper reporter, working as a paid employee whose job it is to understand and communicate useful information, possibly hope to do about that?"  Nope, I am not buying it.

This new study is not really news to anyone familiar with modern science publishing.  No health reporter has any excuse for not already knowing about the tendency toward hype.  Would you expect political reporters to just blindly repeat everything candidates claim without running a reality check based on at least some basic knowledge of public policy.  Ok, bad example.  But presumably you do not want that, even though you expect it.  How about this:  Do you expect tech reporters to just blindly repeat Apple's press release rather than actually evaluating their new toy?  Smart expert reporters know how to deal with inevitable hype.

Of course, hype is not quite inevitable in health research press releases.  When the obvious hype would be politically incorrect, it is mysteriously absent.  Consider this story of ongoing research that points to the conclusion that the flu shots from one or more years actually increased the risk of at least one strain of flu (in particular, the nasty one that everyone was worried about).  The message from the study author is:
the findings should not deter people from getting flu shots
Huh?  It is perfectly fine to say something like "we are still not sure of this, and some data does not support the claim" (true) or "the benefits of the vaccines still outweigh the costs" (might or might not be true -- I suspect that this researcher has no idea one way or the other -- but at least it is not absurd).  But "should not deter"??  Of course it should deter.  However good you thought the idea of getting a flu shot was before, you should think a bit less of it now, which should make you a bit less likely to get it.  Such deterrence is the only rational reaction to the news.

Just imagine a study of a consumer behavior that the public-health-industrial-complex opposes which finds sliver of a hint that the behavior was a tiny bit more harmful than previously believed.  You can bet that they would be insisting that was a definitive reason to avoid the choice.  (Or course, you do not have to imagine that.  You can instead read our new "Anti-THR (tobacco harm reduction) Lie of the Day" blog.)

But if, instead, a study finds evidence to suggests that the H1N1 vaccine may well have caused rather than prevented cases or H1N1?  Well don't worry your pretty little heads about that -- just trust us.

Health and other science reporters need to be able to see through the hype and not over-report things.  But they also need to apply a bullshit filter in the other direction too.

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