Google the term “health media” and up comes a mind-numbing 816 million plus hits. Everything from corporations to blogs, to cable and mainstream TV, print publications & online sites – name it and it’s probably somewhere on this list.
Health News comprised 3.6 percent of coverage by network news in 2007-8 according to a Pew Research study. While that’s more than education, it’s much less than politics and crime stories. Cable news had a pitiful 1.4 percent coverage of the topic.
Many Americans get the majority of their health news from just a few media sources – usually a local TV news program and the local newspaper, according to a PBS Frontline report on the news media. On average, Americans spend just over an hour daily reading, watching, listening, or surfing for news.
When it comes to reporting and analyzing major health news, journalists and commentators are left to explain complex, often interwoven health news in two minutes (two-thirty if they’re lucky), or an half-page newspaper article.
This does both the information and the consumer a huge injustice. You can’t slim down a major clinical study into one or two tantalizing sentences. It’s more intricate than that.
You need to know the underlying details to really make sense of the issue, because what the media describes as “major breakthroughs” on one day, are reversed or ridiculed later on.
Some media outlets twist the essence of a study, new drug, or suddenly popular disease of the moment into false hope and hype. How the story is presented is frequently dependent on who the advertisers are or the political leanings of the media outlet (think Fox vs. MSNBC). And with 816 million potential Internet sources, the risk of misleading or outright false information is a constant. That’s one reason it becomes imperative that recognized and vetted media sources take time to thoroughly explain health news in depth.
Many doctors also report that their offices are flooded with calls following news reports about the latest breakthrough technique or drug for one disease or another. Too often it is not made clear to consumers that the breakthrough likely won’t apply to them – drugs are becoming highly targeted, techniques are often site and condition-specific, or there may be only a handful of patients fitting certain criteria that will benefit.
I often caution my friends not to believe that what they hear or read is the entire story. “But the guy on TV said it will cure cancer.” Probably not. And if it does it’s only part of a bigger, more complex narrative. The Mayo Clinic offers a great primer on how to analyze a news story and separate fact from fluff.
Don’t blame the reporters. Most do an admirable job of attempting to distill dense information into manageable chunks. They just lack the time or space to do it thoroughly. If health news was given its just due in the mainstream media, then more time, more column inches, more pages, would be devoted to helping consumers understand the whole story. In this era of patient empowerment, we need all the information we can get – not management’s idea of a skinny Entertainment Tonight version. You can’t make informed healthcare decisions based on a couple of 30-second sound bites.