Health stories in the media

Fiona Fox, Director of Science Media Centre

It’s easy to take media coverage of health stories at face value, but a degree of scepticism is important, as Miranda Fitzgerald explains.

Health stories are a popular media topic, but taken at face value, they can be misleading or even dangerous.

The top health stories of 2015, according to NHS Choices, included ‘How to lose weight – drink plenty of red wine’ and ‘Hayfever drugs raise risk of Alzheimer’s’. NHS Choices called the first “simply nonsense” and the second “somewhat misleading”.

This type of reporting can have big repercussions. A recent study found a link between negative stories on statins and people stopping taking them. Danish researchers monitoring around 700,000 people found that when negative health stories were published, the number of people quitting medication rose by almost 10 per cent.

This is bad news; the study found people who stopped statins had a 26 per cent higher risk of heart attack and were 18 per cent more likely to die from cardiovascular disease, than those who continued taking them.

Ironically, one newspaper tried to discredit the study with a headline that focused on the fact the co-author was “paid by drug firms”. Fiona Fox (pictured above), Director of the Science Media Centre, said: “That headline wasn’t inaccurate, but it said nothing about the strengths and weaknesses of this study.”

They refused to concede that headlines had to be accurate

Fiona Fox, Director,
Science Media Centre

Professor Børge Nordestgaard, who co-authored the study, was open about his paid consultancy for the drug industry. The science in the study was robustly peer-reviewed by international experts.

Professor Stephen Evans, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “The media need to be responsible in their use of scare stories – they may affect patients’ health.”

Journalists shouldn’t always be blamed for this. A study from Cardiff University, published in the British Medical Journal in December 2014, found academic press releases are the main source of inflated claims in health-related news stories.

Finding evidence Professor Peter Weissberg, former BHF Medical Director, said: “Everyone is influenced to a certain degree by the media and this study emphasises why it’s important to be guided by scientific evidence rather than opinion.

“Thanks to donations from the UK public, BHF-funded research has provided very strong evidence that statins reduce the risk of someone dying from or being disabled by a heart attack or stroke.”

If you’re interested in a particular topic, it’s worth getting a second opinion (see Recommended sources below) and reading the original research. Fiona said: “Scare stories might be based on small studies of just a few people, or on mice rather than humans.

“I hope if people read ‘Statins treble your chance of diabetes’ on the front page of a newspaper, they’d go to other sources like their doctor, the BHF or NICE [National Institute for Health and Care Excellence].”

Efforts to improve

Measures are being taken to improve reporting. During the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking and media culture, the Science Media Centre sat down with journalists and editors to thrash out guidelines for best practice in health reporting. Fiona says they came to agreement on most subjects, but found one sticking point.

“They refused to concede that headlines had to be accurate,” she said. “Many science and health reporters do strive to report science accurately. But we would be naïve to think they care only about measured reporting. They also need to sell newspapers and entertain.”

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is the regulator of the newspaper and magazine industry. An IPSO spokesman said complaints about health reporting were “a small proportion” of rulings.” 

Recommended sources

More useful information