Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Media literacy, or how to read health stories in the news

I started writing this during the recent Labour Party leadership campaign, and have returned to it while doing an excellent MOOC course from Cardiff University, The Informed Health Consumer, one week of which was concerned with the reporting of health stories in the media.

Here are some of my thoughts about reading health stories in the news.

1.  Read the story, and not just the headline.   Is the headline written by the same person who wrote the story?   I am not sure it is, although this reveals my lack of media literacy!   Reading just the headline is perhaps like reading only the title or abstract of a research article.

2.  What motives do the story's authors have?    Or the newspaper?    

3.  Is what the story reports the whole story?   What are other reports saying?  

4.  Have the authors of the news story read the research study they are reporting?  Or just the press release?   And what were the motives behind the press release?

5.  What did the original research actually say or do?   Who did it?    I have memories of stories that drug A is a cure for disease B, or that eating a particular thing makes you live longer, but what did the original research say?   How many people were involved?    Or was it animal research?  Was it a "front group" (effectively a lobby group, trying to look like disinterested people).

If we are going to read a newspaper story about health critically, what should we be looking for?

One of the tutors on the Informed Health Consumer is Andy Williams, a journalism researcher.   This adds an interesting angle.   One of the units lists "science news values", things which journalists look for when reporting science and health, or things that may be shown.   These are
  • Inaccurate reporting of uncertainty, or over extension, so for example, reporting a study that shows marginal risk of cancer in mice, over-extending the results to say that the same thing causes cancer in humans.
  • Focusing on studies that report risks, thus suggesting the world is a riskier place than it is.
  • Simplification - of course it is a valuable thing about reporting that it can simplify technical things, but things can be oversimplified and in the process distorted.
  • Serious disagreements are always reported, suggesting that science has more conflict in it that it does.
  • Human interest angle - of course, this is another positive thing about news reporting, but the risk in health stories is that a report of one person drinking tea and getting cancer is used to suggest that drinking tea always causes cancer.
The course uses some news stories that were picked up by the Behind the Headlines feature on the NHS Choices website, which is an excellent place to look at how health stories are reported.  Behind the Headlines chooses a story picked up by the press, and looks at the original research reported.

Finally, some proper advice on reading health news, from NHS Choices.   This advice is also reproduced on PubMed Health.

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