NHS Choices reckons health reporting has been improving with ‘wonder cures’ hitting the headlines less often and peer-reviewed medial reports covered more responsibly. But the paper illustrated, the Daily Express, is a ‘dishonourable exception’ to the trend, according to the Department of Health-supported information site, which monitors how reports of new therapies and treatments are handled by the media.
However ‘headlines can often give a different impression’. Rely on them and you may get a sensationalist and mistaken sense of the news.
It’s not that news media have stopped churning out stories about miracle cures, for example (from last year) that curry might help stave off dementia and exercise could change your DNA. In both there’s a kernel of truth: the former reported animal studies and the latter was based on informed speculation about the course of genetic expression. But the facts did not lend themselves to either the headlines or the ‘story’ as presented.
Journalists still cannot be trusted with the evidence, especially when it is a matter of probability and subtle distinction between absolute and relative risk. Last June media ran with a story linking men’s tea consumption and prostate cancer. There is a link but so tenuous as to make the story a piece of scaremongering.
During the same month another statistical story ran, along the lines that we are 14% more likely to die on our birthday than other days of the year. Unpack the figures and it turns out to be a lot less mysterious.
Unfortunately for bloggers, Tweeters and journalists, the message in 2013 remains the same as during last year: being accurate may mean junking the story, unless you are prepared to educate your readers in the subtleties of risk and probability.