It’s hard enough to know what news to trust on subjects like which Real Housewife got downgraded to, ‘Friend of Housewife’ status (how dare you, Bravo), but what about when that news story involves something that hits close to home—like your health.
Health news seen online, told to you by a friend, heard on the radio, or read in what I call “olde timey print,” often involves a new breakthrough in medication or treatment. These articles sometimes make me cringe because of a noticeable pattern in delivery. I’ve become suspicious of any headlines that have cure, cause, or revolutionary in them. Almost every time I can look the next day and find a better explanation of what’s going on.
There’s a general thought among social scientists that frustration or skepticism among the public toward new technologies or discoveries stems from a lack of knowledge and the way to fix this is to flood people with information. This is called the information deficit model of science communication. Newspaper articles are one example of filling this judgment gap. The problem is the underlying mindset that if a journalist provides the news, the public will understand the true nature of what they are reading. Basically the, “Well you know what I mean,” approach. So when a writer inflates a discovery’s importance or over-simplifies conclusive evidence, it’s not always apparent to a reader not familiar with the subject.
Operating under the guise of fixing the health news information deficit between the reader and the scientific health community, publishers frequently use this very deficit to their advantage. Example: a reporter will take it upon themselves to (mis)interpret complicated scientific jargon pulled from a press release into something more digestible, yet still interesting to their readers. Basically, it’s as if you combined the technique of writing at a 7th-grade level with spin journalism. This is how “Taking Aspirin Leads to Two Fewer Strokes per 1,000 Woman Over a Six Year Period” becomes “Aspirin Reduces Risk of Stroke in Women by 24 Percent.” The deficit also impacts the communication link between the scientific researchers and writers. If a writer doesn’t understand all facets of the research, he or she may not fact check in order to meet a deadline or even print the press release verbatim.
All these seemingly innocuous blurred truths have a huge impact on people’s consciousness of the current state of health care and medicine. But some publishers of articles count on casual readers’ ignorance of these points to sell their “game changing” news.
So, how do you judge breaking health news?
- Make sure the story cites more than one study —it could be taken directly from a press release that could be biased
- Follow the link (if given) to the study results; it’s always best to go to the source
- Articles shouldn’t rely on customer anecdotes, which are sometimes used in place of insufficient data
- Find out in which phase of research the treatment or medicine is currently. Phase III is right before FDA approval, and pre-clinical studies are still testing in animals. Most things you see that say “animal testing showed positive results” will never make it to fruition
Editor’s note: This post is based on On the Media’s A Skeptic’s Guide to Health News and Diet Fads published on Friday, July 31, 2015. A version of this post appeared on the Healthyist on November, 19, 2015.
Blair Humienny is an Online Media Specialist at MMG. She has a B.S in Business Administration with a concentration in marketing from the University of Pittsburgh and has spent the past five years working in health care communications and advertising. She is frequently referred to as MMG’s Khaleesi of social media and online analytics (but does not actually know any dragons.