Washington Square News

Inaccurate Medical Journalism Produces False Positives

By Aparna Alankar, Contributing Writer

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Health news in mass media should, in theory, be coverage of pharmacological developments, clinical trials and actual laboratory research. Instead, it has become a jumbled variety of dubious studies, extrapolated claims and fad diets. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that there is currently no middle ground between the health news coverage in mass media and the technical jargon of accredited medical journals. The media is, unfortunately, the public’s primary source for health information. Yet the poor coverage is ultimately promoting a lack of public health literacy, affecting the practicality of individual health care decisions. It is crucial that the system be revised to better educate the public on health issues.

There are a number of factors contributing to the current state of health news coverage. Academics themselves are part of the problem, succumbing to the pressure to publish studies that will be widely read as opposed to thoroughly researched but potentially less accessible. A study’s potential to be published affects the decisions of tenure review boards and grant-giving organizations, to a point where many academics subtly skew their research to generate clickbait-oriented results, while others tailor and pitch their papers directly to journalists.

The danger is that these studies do not circulate through standard academic review processes before being published, and many journalists are not equipped to distinguish valid studies from invalid studies. The current system of academic competition for faculty positions and research grants, combined with the challenges of independently covering health and medical news, results in improper mass media coverage of health news. Either dubious studies are published because of the lack of oversight, or claims are being exaggerated to generate media attention.

Improper health news coverage affects the public level of health literacy. People with limited health literacy skills are often misinformed about the body and of disease, leading to a misunderstanding of the relationship between lifestyle factors like diet and exercise and various health outcomes. This ultimately translates to an inability to make informed health decisions; for example, we are still experiencing the repercussions of the media circus that arose from the 1998 claim that vaccines cause autism, despite lack of evidence.

The best way to remedy the situation is to create a middle ground between medical journals and mass media. This platform must consist of health news that is comprehensible, accurate and up-to-date with the rapid progression of medical science. Maintaining a high public level of health literacy is important — life-altering decisions are often made based on the level of health literacy an individual has. Therefore, mass media and medical academia must come together to enable the public to make informed health decisions.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

Email Aparna Alankar at [email protected]

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