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Mainstream Media’s Sub-Par Health Coverage, Part 2

I recently wrote about an experience that I had with a reporter (Erica Mitrano) who interviewed me about energy healing at Calvert Memorial Hospital in southern Maryland. Erica was very friendly and inquisitive, and we had a nice conversation about the lack of scientific evidence supporting any energy healing modality. I thought it would be fun to post what we had discussed at SBM, and then wait to see what trickled down into the finished piece.

When the final article appeared I was very disappointed. Not only was I not quoted, but there was no skeptical counterpoint at all. The story read like an unquestioning endorsement of junk science, and I wondered if it was worth it to continue speaking to journalists to offer expert advice. It seemed to me that this experience was emblematic of all that’s wrong with health reporting these days. (Just ask Gary Schwitzer, who has recently given up on reviewing TV health stories in mainstream media since they are generally so inaccurate.)

But I want to apologize to Erica, because part of the problem in this case was her editors. The online version of her story was substantially different from her printed version –- and in this case the printed version was much more balanced. About one-third of an entire newspaper page (The Enterprise, Friday, February 19, 2010, St. Mary’s County, Maryland) was devoted to my counter arguments. Here’s a short excerpt:

“I’m honestly not aware of any scientific evidence that supports anything beyond the placebo effect with the energy healing modalities, including Reiki,” Jones said. “There is nothing we can measure that suggests there is a special force that needs to be balanced…”

Success stories are anecdotal and can generally be accounted for by a person getting better from something like an infection on his own. Patients tend to report success from energy work more often for subjective ailments, especially pain and emotional problems, she said…

Jones opposes untested therapies’ inclusion in hospitals.

“I think it’s misleading to the patients because they’re going to a hospital, they’re trusting the hospital will offer them treatments that have proof that they work and they don’t realize that these nurses are offering nonscientific therapies,” Jones said.

“I would rather that the nurses be given time to sit and talk to patients, go into the room and say, ‘Mrs. Smith, I’m sure you feel completely stressed out right now, and I don’t blame you.’ That would be more effective than concocting this pseudoscientific excuse for having nurses lay hands on people when really the patient needs a listening ear and a compassionate soul to talk to.”

But I think this case still serves as a reminder that traditional media’s approach to health story coverage can be flawed. Specifically, my concerns are these:

1. “Balance” – While I recognize the importance of impartiality in news reporting, the quest for balance can go too far. Some facts are incontrovertible, so regularly insisting that the truth is “somewhere in between” can be both misleading and dangerous.

2. Editing – Reporters can write an excellent piece of journalism that becomes nearly unrecognizable after their editors are finished with it.

3. Inability to crowd source – The advantage of blogs is that readers can correct the original article or add their valuable views. Without a community of virtual editors/contributors, any one news article is limited by the point of view and skills of the journalist.

4. Sensationalism – Mainstream media outlets are slaves to ratings and traffic. This means that they are under constant pressure to exaggerate the truth or misrepresent scientific research. Attention-grabbing headlines sell papers, and “good science makes bad television.” So readers must take what they read with a grain of salt.

5. Author credentials – Sadly, highly trained science journalists are being laid off in record numbers due to the economic realities of the failing newspaper business. Remaining writers often do not have the depth of experience to handle complicated health topics and do not represent important scientific nuances correctly.

In conclusion, I’d like to thank Erica for the opportunity to weigh in on energy healing and apologize for any distress that my blog post (expressing my frustration with the apparent bias revealed in the final online article) may have caused her. I know that Erica received a pointed letter of complaint regarding the story because of my post. I think it’s a good thing that people care enough about bias and misinformation to send formal complaints because when those cease, we’ll be in serious trouble!

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

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