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Can you Rely on the Media for Accurate Medical Reporting?

written by: Emma Lloyd • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 12/20/2008

Most people rely on popular media for information about medical breakthroughs, and new drugs and treatments. But can you trust that this information is accurate and unbiased?

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    Most people don’t have an extensive science-based education, and unless you’ve started or completed a science degree, your science education probably ended in high school. You’re getting most of your information about medical science, treatments, drugs, and diseases from the media – newspapers, TV, online. But how much of that information is accurate? Is what you read and hear misleading?

    These questions were the focus of a recent study by researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada, who examined more than five hundred newspaper articles about the results of clinical trials involving either pharmaceutical drugs or herbal remedies. They also studied the clinical trials to which the newspaper articles referred.

    So what did they find?

    • The media tended to under-emphasize the risks when reporting on both pharmaceutical trials and herbal remedy trials.
    • Disclosure of trial funding and any conflict of interest of researchers was largely absent for both types of clinical trial.
    • Errors of omission were common in both types of trial. Newspapers tend to omit important information such as sample size, dose, and methods, from reports about clinical trials.
    • For pharmaceutical trials, the main focus of the article was the trial. For herbal remedy trials, around one third of the article would focus on other issues about the use of herbal remedies.
    • In almost all articles about both types of trial, the main benefit cited was improved health or expanded treatment options.
    • The media relies predominantly on sources such as clinicians, physicians, satisfied patients, and patient advocate groups, but does not disclose any information about ties to industry, or conflict of interest, for any sources.
    • Articles about pharmaceutical trials are more likely to be positive in tone, while articles about herbal trials are more likely to be negative or skeptical in tone. However, the researchers point out that the herbal remedy trials they examined were slightly more likely to include negative results – and this partially accounts for the noted different in reporting by newspapers.

    Overall, the researchers have concluded that it is virtually impossible for the public to assess whether or not research is credible based on newspaper articles. Articles published by researchers in scientific journals tend to be liberally peppered with qualifiers such as might, should, possibly, perhaps, and maybe, but these don’t always make it to newspaper reports.

    So what’s the message? Simply that it’s important to take the media with a grain of salt when it comes to medical reporting – and remember even when statistics are accurate, they can be misleading when presented in a certain way.

    References and Further Reading

    Herbal remedy clinical trials in the media: a comparison with the coverage of conventional pharmaceuticals.

    Statistics Sense, a BrightHub Series by Robin Broyles