Catching up on the latest news about a new medical marvel? You might want to have a more skeptical view of the coverage, according to researchers writing in JAMA Internal Medicine.
A team of researchers from HealthNewsReview.org examined coverage by major U.S. news outlets from April 16, 2006 through May 30, 2013. Focusing exclusively on coverage of new medical treatments, tests, products, and procedures, the researchers gave most news stories an unsatisfactory grade when it came to reporting accurately on costs, benefits, harms, quality of evidence, and comparable alternative treatments.
“Vested interests, marketing, politics and media hype often have more influence on how new medical advances get used than the best scientific evidence,” they wrote.
The team of researchers who reviewed the seven years of coverage included physicians, journalists, and patients.
Typically, news stories showed the benefits of medical breakthroughs in a positive frame by using statistics on the relative reduction in risk but not including those on the absolute reduction in risk. “Consequently, the potential benefits of interventions were exaggerated,” the report noted.
News stories about observational studies rarely explained relevant limitations, while also failing to explain to readers the difference between association and causation. Half of the stories examined by HealthNewsReview.org relied on a single medical source or did not disclose conflicts of interests—such as a physician commenting on a new drug who also is a consultant to the drug manufacturer.
“For seven years, our media watchdog project has established that health care news stories often emphasize or exaggerate potential benefits, minimize or ignore potential harms, and ignore cost issues,” the researchers concluded. “Our findings can help health journalists improve their news stories and help physicians and the public better understand the strengths and weaknesses of news media coverage of medical and health topics.”