Preferring the Miracle Cure to Plain Alternatives

In my statistics class, we recently discussed how there is a bias in terms of what studies and articles are published. Studies that have statistically significant results that go against the status quo are more likely to be published. People want to hear about new findings, rather than stories confirming what have already been proved true.

This is similar to what we learned last week. Reporting news is a business. Therefore, newspapers and journals are printing stories that their consumers are going to want to read. Those stories tend to be unusual, sensational stories.

Do you think these concepts have fueled this occurrence of less than accurate health news stories? Do you think that rating websites, such as HealthNewsReview.org that is mentioned in the medical coverage article, will be able to improve the quality of future health journalism? Or is the problem too uprooted in the practices of the overall news business in terms of reporting stories that they believe readers will want to read? How would you propose improving the quality of health news coverage?

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6 Responses to “Preferring the Miracle Cure to Plain Alternatives”

  1. I think that the need for good ratings and high revenues in any news outlet results in biased articles. Like you said, they want to release articles that are going to attract the attention of the public and get readers or viewers. I think that HealthNewsReview.org is doing a good job of creating awareness about this bias, but it is by no means solving the problem. I think that there are a few ways to solve this problem. First is the removal of profits and/or ratings from the media. By turning news organizations into nonprofits, you are essentially removing the incentive for outlets to provide anything but the unbiased truth. With that being said, that option would be rather impossible because some of the wealthiest, most powerful companies in the world are based on news, and they aren’t going to give up their profitability. But, nonprofit news organizations could start and compete with the for-profit, more biased outlets, which could be a good option. The next option, which I think is more reasonable, is to align the interests of the outlets with the interests of the public. This would be much like the system public companies use to align the interests of the board with the interests of the shareholders. By paying board members in stock, they are incentivized to act in the interest of the shareholders, because a win for the shareholders is synonymous with a win for the board. This would be complicated, but I think it is a considerable option, and by aligning profitability with the unbiasedness and significance of the news being reported, we could see a shift in the way news is reported.

  2. I understand the importance of a scoring system such as this one, since many people have strong negative feelings towards journalism and its dangers. For one, journalists tend to put too much weight in creating a balanced argument that they tend to give voice to an unfounded dissenting opinion. This can definitely be dangerous when it comes to the health field, as the information we read in the media about our own health may determine future behavior. It can also be dangerous if the author is unversed in the health field and therefore provides shoddy advice about something that could save a life.

    Alternatively, though, I feel that this list is unnecessarily extensive. Journalists have many demands on them and their work. It has to be interesting, to the point, and also create an impact in a life or an understanding. Expecting a journalist to cover this entire list in one articles is not only expecting a lot, it is also ignoring the fact that it is not a journalist’s job to be a public health advocate. They can inform to the best of their abilities (this is the part that could be done better) but then expecting above and beyond this an overly ambitious goal for the field. It is profit-driven, which is a reality that they have to take into account. And it seems like they just aren’t.

  3. It’s an unfortunate reality that news outlets are businesses and must be run as such. unbiased, important, and informative news is often lost when the power of money comes into play. I agree with Ben that the ratings is a good way to address the problem, but it does seem to fall pretty far short from providing any real sort of change. for one thing, how many people will actually take the time to check the ratings? most people have a hard time finding time to simply read the article, much less check its rating on a completely different site. Again echoing what ben said, I think the change needs to come from within.
    I think that updates and news stories that go against the status quo, for example something about the dangers of widely used antibiotics, are important to include in news coverage. However, the articles should always put the study being cited into context. Similar to what was said earlier and what came up in our climate change discussion, it can be detrimental to the education of the public to make an issue seem widely debated when in fact it is very one-sided (climate scientists on human-caused global warming, for example). If an article says something controversial and against the status quo, it should also say that this is only one study of many and that further research is needed to either confirm or disprove the theory.
    As much as we need to put pressure on individual journalists to have integrity in their articles, it is equally important to address the problems with the market and the news organizations themselves that are promoting shady reporting in the first place. Much like policemen or government workers, there could be some sort of screening process that makes sure that only respectable people are allowed to inform the public. Of course that is a subjective measure and also would be very difficult to implement, but the idea behind it nonetheless is I think essential in promoting reliable news coverage and stories that inform rather than persuade or create bias.

  4. I think that these concepts have created a shift in what people find interesting in the news, and also how those news sources present such stories. Whether a novel medical practice is well-researched or extremely costly, if it shows potential of helping to treat a specific condition it will be a much more interesting story than, for example, a story on a slight improvement to a pre-existing medical treatment or procedure. People tend to be more interested in groundbreaking, recent scientific news than things they have been hearing about for years. HealthNewsReview.org helps to improve the quality of health journalism–which tends to focus on novel practices or treatments–by encouraging them to provide well balanced reviews of these practices by examining all of the costs, benefits, and harms instead of the potential they have. I do not believe that this problem is too uprooted in news practices to cause detract from the news quality. The news exists to present stories on the interesting, new stories going on in the world. The problem lies in the way these news outlets are telling the story. I think the way to improve the quality of health news coverage in the media is the same approach that HealthNewsReview.org is taking; have actual doctors examine the various featured medical stories and show what these news sources are doing wrong, well and specific ways of how the stories coverage in certain aspects can be improved.

  5. I agree with Lisa, that it is unreasonable to expect all articles that are covering health news to hit all of the points that the HealthNewsReview.org identified. Journalism gets the new, interesting health news out there in a way that gets people’s attention. A breaking news article on new health news does not have the space to be completely comprehensive. Readers who really want to know about a health topic should not be looking at a news article for all of there information (a doctor or specifically health related site is where they should be going). It is important that all the facts are correct however. So having medical professionals critique news article would be beneficial. Overall I do support the website’s goals, though I think that they should mostly focus on accuracy, not a checklist of requirements.

  6. It is true that people may not be getting more wholesome and perhaps accurate news because the consumers are demanding new findings. I agree with you in saying that reporting news is a business. Businesses work on a supply-and-demand basis, and so there will always be an abundant number of stories that are out there.

    One example I can think of on the top of my head is vaccinations causing autism. Although this has been debunked many years ago in a study, this story seemed so interesting that there have been many publications on it. This is extremely dangerous because it is news that is completely inaccurate and could lead to children contracting diseases and even dying from them.

    Sadly, this is what the consumer looks for in an article: something that stands out. I think this demand will be impossible to fix. However, rating websites, such as HealthNewsReview.org use a helpful approach by using doctors to explain the articles. However, I think that this can only help to a certain degree. Doctors may have different opinions and understandings, and we cannot trust them 100% just because they are doctors.

    I don’t think that the problem is too uprooted, but there will certainly be limitations on how health news stories can be more accurately represented. I think one important way to improve these stories, for example, is to clearly explain in the article that a finding is not commonly supported. Although this may seem bothersome, I think it should be the job of the journalist to provide an accurate report.

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