It was one of the only notes of caution we saw in our limited sampling of news stories about an analysis of an experimental stem cell intervention in 14 people – only 8 of whom were followed for a year. Husten wrote:
“Two small studies of cardiac stem cells for the treatment of heart failure have shown promise, but ABC News, CBS News and other media outlets are throwing around words like “medical breakthrough” and “heart failure cure.” ABC News correspondent Richard Besser was so enthusiastic that anchor Diane Sawyer commented that she had never seen him “so excited.” The first author of one of the studies, Roberto Bolli, said the work could represent “the biggest advance in cardiology in my lifetime.”
We simply don’t know why more news organizations can’t do an adequate job of explaining the limitations of observational studies – most notably, that they can’t prove cause and effect.
Yes, they can show strong associations. But they can’t prove cause and effect.
NBC Nightly News, as one example recently, inadequately explained the latest suggestion that coffee consumption can lower the risk of prostate cancer. In the anchor lead, Brian Williams framed this as another case of flip-flopping science, lightheartedly talking about what they say about “all those medical studies…if you don’t like the findings, wait for the next study.”
The story seemed puzzled at how the same “lab” 30 years ago reported that coffee was linked to an increase in pancreatic cancer. NBC said the researchers later said they got it wrong. This time – with the prostate cancer link – they say they got it right. Read more »
The BMJ’s statement this week that the 1998 article by Andrew Wakefield and 12 others “linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent” demonstrates what a difference one journalist can make. Journalist Brian Deer played a key role in uncovering and dismantling the Wakefield story.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper had a segment worth watching, including a new interview Cooper conducted with Wakefield via Skype:
Unfortunately, journalism played a key role in promoting Wakefield’s claims. The “Respectful Insolence” blog referred to one journalist as “CBS’ resident anti-vaccine propagandist.” Around the world there were many other examples of journalists’ unquestioning acceptance of the vaccine scares.
The BMJ reminds us that “the damage to public health continues, fuelled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals, and the medical profession.”
This week the respected CBS documentary news show “60 Minutes” included a feature on smokeless tobacco, focusing on the recent launch of snus in the United States. The show was relatively balanced in focusing on the main potential risks and benefits of snus.
It started by featuring a young man who enjoys using snus in places where he cannot smoke, while continuing with a pack-a-day smoking addiction. The interviewer gave him the bad news: “You are a dual user.”
It then had a segment with the widely respected Swedish nicotine addiction expert, Dr Karl Fagerstrom, who stated that snus is 90-99% less harmful than smoking (while admitting some risks, including of pancreatic cancer). Read more »
Why aren’t Americans in the streets, demanding reform of a health care system that is providing inadequate care for millions, wildly inefficient, and gradually bankrupting our country? A major reason: proponents of reform have lost control over the message because people think it’s too complicated to understand. Confused about important details of the proposals, the public is susceptible to misrepresentations by opponents. Read more »
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