THE MEDIA: Do Reporters Exaggerate Medical Studies?
As the news media struggles "to reverse declining circulation in an increasingly competitive and clamorous marketplace," they have "become ever more 'splashy and sexy' on virtually every subject they have covered in recent years" -- including what they often label medical breakthroughs, according to a Los Angeles Times two-part series on how the media covers medicine. Dr. Dennis Slamon, director of clinical research at UCLA's Johnson Cancer Center, said, "The media want to have something new ... something that will catch the public's eye, so it can't just be 'progress has been made.' ... It's got to be something really splashy and sexy." Although many reporters have a medical background or have garnered on-the-job experience, some science writers are inexperienced reporters, who "often lack even a rudimentary understanding of the issues they are covering." And even the experienced reporters "often overstate the implications of the findings they are reporting and ignore or minimize the caveats and potential downside of a new treatment."
Exaggeration Raises False Hope
Michael Lemonick, science writer for Time, said, "There's pressure to find exciting things and maybe even to emphasize the most exciting aspects of stories." While exaggerated claims can "raise false hopes and expectations," extensive coverage, as is the case with AIDS treatment, can contribute to "widespread complacency." Daniel Zingale, former executive director of AIDS Action, said that those most at risk for AIDS have become "more lax in their personal, sexual behavior, they slackened their vigilance, because those headlines made them think AIDS was (curable)." Zingale added that donations to AIDS organizations have declined since 1996 and federal HIV prevention funding has "stagnated." To ward off false hope, some reporters "sometimes try to avoid overplaying new scientific discoveries by relegating them to roundup columns on the inside pages in their weekly health and science sections, rather than writing long, separate stories for the main news pages." However, Robert Lee Hotz, a Los Angeles Times reporter, said that "the reality of a reporters' life is that you only exist if you're on the front page and there are several magic catchwords you can use to ensure that you get on the front page." Words such as "cure" and "breakthrough" are "the most likely passports to page one."
The Other Factor
The media are not entirely at fault, though. Scientists, prone to ego, "are often responsible for exaggerated reports on their findings," and the temptation becomes even greater when their budgets are up for congressional approval. Dorothy Nelkin, author of the book Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology, said, "Scientist have become ... masters of the sound bite. Scientists have learned how to package information for journalists so they can get the attention they want" (Shaw, part 1, 2/13). Also, the "major medical journals set the journalistic agenda in mainstream press coverage." Tom Siegried, science editor of the Dallas Morning News, said, "Most medical reporters are slaves to the journals. The journal system is destructive of good reporting." While the "primary function of medical journals ... is to tell doctors about advances in scientific research and new remedies for various medical conditions," the journals have "increasingly become cash cows," according to New York Times reporter Dr. Lawrence Altman. He added, "Few would say that articles in leading journals are distorted or unreliable, but the quest for profits raises several disturbing issues: the journals' increasing appetite for publicity; how a burst of publicity can inflate the importance of a new finding; (and) the drug industry's influence on the journals through advertising revenues."
Who's Questioning the Journals?
Journals serve as the "starting point for -- and the basic thrust of -- most mainstream stories about new treatments and new drugs." Thomas Maugh, Los Angeles Times reporter, said, "Ninety-five percent of my stories come from the journals. We're spoon-fed. They manipulate us. But it benefits us as well as them, so I don't see the harm." Researchers also are beholden to the "Ingelfinger rule," followed by most journals, which prevents a researcher from being published in a journal if the same research had been offered to any other book, journal or newspaper. Reporters also have to keep an eye out for bias within studies or conflicts of interest. UCLA's Slamon said that journals and journalists "have to be critical and skeptical, asking questions that will help them determine if the research is legitimate. He added, "There's no substitute for responsible reporting" (Shaw, part 2, 2/14).