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June 04, 2008

On Media Coverage of Health & Illness

Over at the incomparable Health Beat Blog, Maggie Mahar does an excellent job summarizing the implications of several new articles published in PLoS Medicine on the woeful state of media coverage of health care and biomedical research.

We've noted our concern with these issues on several occasions here on MH Blog.  Mahar writes:

the journal’s editors summarize  what the Health News Review has discovered over the past two years while evaluating medical stories about new products and procedures throughout the mainstream media.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” says Gary Schwitzer, the University of Minnesota School of Journalism professor who publishes the online project.

In a video linked to the Health News Review website,  Schwitzer points out that “about 65% of the time” major news organization are not telling viewers and readers how “big the potential harms” of new treatments are–or “how small the potential benefits.”

Meanwhile, about three-quarters of the stories about a new product or procedure fail to talk about how much the idea costs.  “At a time when the U.S. is spending 16 percent of GDP on healthcare, I find this unfathomable,” says Schwitzer. “No one is asking: ‘How are we going to pay for it?’; ‘Who will have access to these things’?; ‘Who’s to say that we even need some of these things?  This is what we need to discuss.”

Ultimately, “these stories are painting a ‘kid in the candy-store’ picture of US health care,” Schwitzer charges, “whereby everything is made to look terrific, risk-free, and without a price tag. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Indeed.  In the accompanying editorial, the PLoS Medicine editors note that "the report card from HealthNewsReview.org is grim.  Most stories (62%-77%) failed to adequately address costs, harms, benefits, the quality of evidence, and the existence of other treatment options."

From a MH perspective, it's important to see that the media is a discursive process, which means that if there is a widespread practice of overstating hopes and understating fears, that practice reflects a number of social and cultural norms that converge to create a journalistic culture in which such reporting becomes standard.  As such, an important question to ask is what norms animate these practices? Especially if we want to work at correcting the purveyance of "false hopes" and "unwarranted fears" in media coverage of health care and research, it seems important to understand better why such practices are commonplace to begin with.

Offhand, I tend to think there are some strong cultural and social forces at work in general, related to the awesome legitimizing power of science, and the quasi-shamanistic role of the professional healer as salvation incarnate (the religious studies term for an ethos centered on salvation is "soteriological").  The vulnerable sick person invests so much in their professional healer, and the rescue narrative also fulfills a number of social, political, and cultural niches for the healer as well.

Thus, to understand why media coverage is often so inaccurate seems to me to require at least some understanding of the larger role medicine and science play in making meaning of suffering and in serving as the ultimate authority and legitimizer of knowledge.



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