People are highly willing to know about the results and developments of health and medicine research. This increases the demand for information on this topic in the media.
However, the mass media has been found to be a poor vehicle for conveying scientifically accurate health news, with a propensity towards sensationalism and sins of omission. Several studies have identified the need to improve health news quality, including training courses for journalists.
How is health news produced?
In a world where the media has a huge influence on people’s decisions, it is important to understand how health news is produced. This is because health news can contain misleading or inaccurate information which could have adverse effects on people’s health and wellbeing. For instance, a recent study found that the media often portrays medical treatments as either ‘lifesaving’ or ‘toxic’ based on their emotional content rather than on their clinical efficacy. Such misreporting can lead to people making wrong treatment choices which may cause more harm than good.
In one study, journalists reported that they often struggled to balance their commercial imperatives with their ethical commitments. They aimed to maintain quality by checking and balancing their stories for accuracy, providing balanced reporting of controversial issues, avoiding sensationalism and sins of omission, and using reliable expert sources.
However, these efforts are not always successful. For example, a recent survey of 500 health news articles published in large newspapers found that many were flawed, presenting an exaggerated view of the benefits or risks of specific interventions and failing to discuss alternative options. A further study examined health news coverage on TV and found that it tended to be biased towards a Biomedical Frame (stories focused on biological causality or technological interventions), a Lifestyle Frame (stories that focus on an individual’s lifestyle choices) and a Social Frame (stories that highlight socio-economic causes). These biases are problematic, as they promote the notion that biomedicine has supremacy over all domains of life.
How is health news disseminated?
Health news stories are published in a variety of ways including in newspapers, magazines, on television and the internet. Some websites aggregate breaking medical news and provide professional medical analysis. Others focus on evaluating the evidence behind new ideas in health care. These include MDLinx, which provides clinicians with the real-time information they need to answer patients’ questions; and Medical News Today, which disseminates the latest scientific developments in a timely manner.
A study conducted in Tehran, Iran investigated people’s level of trust in health news and its source and how it affects their attitudes towards following news. The findings showed that people had more trust in domestic news sources than foreign ones because they were perceived to be more accurate and precise, and covered more important news.
What can be done to improve the quality of health news?
Along with an increase in the generation of science and research achievements, media have tended to broadcast the results more than before. However, the scientific quality of disseminated health news is a major concern in terms of authenticity and accuracy. Various factors at different levels could be influential in this regard.
As other studies have recognized, lack of health knowledge among the journalists is one of the main reasons behind low quality of health news. Consequently, it is essential to address this issue by creating specialized training courses.
Developing a guide for the production of health news with required checklists is also an effective measure. In addition, a promotional approach to improve the status quo is unavoidable. This involves efforts at the individual level through academic and specialized trainings as well as organizational and policymaking levels.