This week’s edition of NPR’s On The Media had several segments on health issues and their coverage in the media. Two that I want to point out were particularly relevant to the Macbethian debate over framing vs. spin. Spinning a story is often analyzed from the context of a particular political perspective, but there’s also the tendency to spin a story for sensationalistic purposes (this is a significant theme in much of The Daily Show’s media criticism).
Sensationalism can be demonstrated by the journalistic cliche “if it bleeds, it leads” or the so-called “Screamer” headlines that emphasized the tragedy of a particular story. But the kind of sensationalism focused on by two segments of the On the Media program covered sensationalism (or spin) of the benefits of medical research outcomes. The first targets the claims of the health stories covered in U.S. national morning news show. It’s gotten bad enough that HealthNewsReview.org has essentially given up on reviewing the morning program coverage because it is consistently lousy. Of particular concern is the emphasis on asserting that research results will become miracle treatments. This is not the same problem as the overprediction I posted about recently, but outright wild extrapolation of studies that aren’t necessarily properly rigorous, or otherwise even suggestive of the kinds of claims made in the morning. To suggest that results suggested in mice would lead to similar outcomes in humans based on a single study is irresponsible, especially if it’s the kind of arguments like ‘blue dye can cure paralysis.’
The other segment specific to the sensationalism of morning television health news coverage is an interview with the medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News, Dr. Jonathan LaPook. In this interview Dr. LaPook’s comments about his motivations for how he reports medical news suggest that in this area, having scientists – medical doctors – cover these topics makes it easier to resist the trends toward sensationalistic coverage. But the advantage here is not in the scientific knowledge a medical doctor will bring, but the ethical considerations behind how they report. Dr. LaPook is mindful of how what he says will be heard by actual or prospective patients, and is concerned about how stories can provide false hope. Unfortunately, it seems as though not all doctors are similarly mindful.