MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd
Presumably we all agree that journalists can have a considerable influence over consumers’ behaviour. They seem obsessed with alternative medicine – no, I don’t mean extraordinary specimens of the journalist-tribe, like the one who pocketed money from five homeopathic manufacturers to defame me. I mean the middle of the road, respectable journalist writing for middle of the road respectable papers. Hardly a day goes past without the subject attracting their attention. Such coverage is surely going to influence the usage of alternative medicine. But are there any hard data to back up this assumption?
In 2000, we conduced a study to determine the frequency and tone of reporting on medical topics in daily newspapers in the UK and Germany. Eight major daily newspapers (4 German and 4 British) were scanned for medical articles on eight randomly chosen working days in the summer of 1999. All articles relating to medical topics were extracted and categorised according to subject, length, and tone of article (critical, positive, or neutral).

A total of 256 newspaper articles were evaluated. We identified 80 articles in the German papers and 176 in the British; thus, the British reported on medical topics more than twice as often as German broadsheets. Articles in German papers were on average considerably longer and took a positive attitude more often than British ones. We identified 4 articles on alternative medicine in the German and 26 in the UK newspapers. The tone of the UK articles was unanimously positive (100%) whereas most 75% of the German articles on alternative medicine were critical.

This analysis, we concluded, suggested that, compared with German newspapers, British newspapers report more frequently on medical matters and generally have a more critical attitude. The proportion of articles on alternative medicine seems to be considerably larger in the UK (15% v 5%), and, in contrast to articles on medical matters in general, reporting on alternative medicine in the UK was overwhelmingly positive.

That was 13 years ago, and things may well have changed since then. My impression is that more critical coverage of alternative medicine has finally and thankfully begun to emerge. But, even if this is true, we still cannot be sure how misleading it is. In 2006, we therefore conducted another investigation aimed at assessing UK newspapers’ coverage of alternative medicine, this time specifically for cancer.

We searched the “Lexis Nexis” database for 3-month periods in 2002, 2003 and 2004 to retrieve all relevant articles. A total of 310 articles were thus found: 117 came from national and 193 originated from local newspapers. The UK press showed an increasing interest towards alternative medicine for cancer (in 2002, 81 articles; in 2003, 82 articles and in 2004, 147 articles). The most frequently mentioned alternative therapies were diets and supplements (17.7%). Articles mainly focused on alternative medicine as possible cancer treatments (44.8%), and 53.4% of all treatments mentioned were not backed up by evidence. The tone of the articles was generally positive towards alternative medicine. Promotional articles increased over the years, especially for cancer centres and clinics.

Our conclusion: UK national newspapers frequently publish articles on alternative medicine for cancer. Much of this information seems to be uncritical with a potential for misleading patients.

There is no doubt that, in recent months, some journalists have produced excellent articles on alternative medicine. Let me use this occasion to congratulate them for this achievement. Yet, at the same time, it is indisputably true that misleading journalism continues to cause harm on a daily basis. Vulnerable people are thus led to make wrong therapeutic decisions; in some cases, this will only cost money, in other instances, it may well cost lives. Today, I would therefore formulate a much more constructive conclusion: it is time, I think that, when writing about health and medicine, journalists constantly remind themselves that they have a responsibility towards public health and stop giving bogus treatments a free ride.

And finally, to make this more fun, I invite you the reader of this post to report the most misleading newspaper article about alternative medicine you have come across (and, if possible provide a link to it). I will try to be a shining example and start with my choice: I’ve seen herbal remedy make tumours disappear, says respected cancer doctor (THE DAILY TELEGRAPH 20 SEPT 2004) The sub-headline that followed was: Since I have been putting people on Carctol I have seen miracles. Carctol, it turns out, once we do some research, is a herbal mixture heavily promoted as an alternative cancer cure, which is not supported by any reliable evidence at all. I do wonder how many lives have been shortened by this article!

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