MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

I live (most of my time) in the UK, a country where the media interest in so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is considerable. Years ago, the UK press used to be very much in favour of SCAM. In 2000, we showed that the level of interest was huge and the reporting was biased. Here is our short BMJ paper on the subject:

The media strongly influences the public’s view of medical matters. Thus, we sought to determine the frequency and tone of reporting on medical topics in daily newspapers in the United Kingdom and Germany. The following eight newspapers were scanned for medical articles on eight randomly chosen working days in the summer of 1999: the Times, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, and the Guardian in the United Kingdom, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Rundschau, and Die Welt in Germany. 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. The results of our analysis are summarised in the table. We identified 80 articles in the German newspapers and 176 in the British; thus, British newspapers seem to report on medical topics more than twice as often as German broadsheets. Articles in German papers are on average considerably longer and take a positive attitude more often than British ones. Drug treatment was the medical topic most frequently discussed in both countries (51 articles (64%) in German newspapers and 97 (55%) in British). Surgery was the second most commonly discussed medical topic in the UK newspapers (32 articles; 18%). In Germany professional politics was the second most commonly discussed topic (11 articles; 14%); this category included articles about the standing of the medical profession, health care, and social and economic systems—that is, issues not strictly about treating patients.

Because our particular interest is in complementary medicine, we also calculated the number of articles on this subject. We identified four articles in the German newspapers and 26 in the UK newspapers. In the United Kingdom the tone of these articles was unanimously positive (100%) whereas most (3; 75%) of the German articles on complementary medicine were critical.

This analysis is, of course, limited by its small sample size, the short observation period, and the subjectivity of some of the end points. Yet it does suggest that, compared with German newspapers, British newspapers report more frequently on medical matters and generally have a more critical attitude (table). German newspapers frequently discuss medical professional politics, a subject that is almost totally absent from newspapers in the United Kingdom.

The proportion of articles about complementary medicine seems to be considerably larger in the United Kingdom (15% v 5%), and, in contrast to articles on medical matters in general, reporting on complementary medicine in the United Kingdom is overwhelmingly positive. In view of the fact that both healthcare professionals and the general public gain their knowledge of complementary medicine predominantly from the media, these findings may be important.2,3

Table

Reporting on medical topics by daily newspapers in the United Kingdom and Germany, 1999

Country

United Kingdom (n=176) Germany (n=80)
Mean No articles/day 5.5 2.5
Mean (SD) No words/article 130 (26) 325 (41)
Ratio of positive articles to critical articles* 1.0 3.2

Even though I have no new data on this, my impression is that things have since changed. It seems that the UK press has become more objective and are now reporting more critical comments on SCAM. While this is most welcome, of course, one feature is still deplorable, in my view: journalists’ obsession with ‘balance’.

A recent example might explain this best. The ‘i’ newspaper published an article about homeopathy which was well-written and thoroughly researched. It explained the current best evidence on the subject and made it quite clear why homeopathy is not a reasonable therapy for any condition. But then, towards the end of the article, the journalist added this section:

Dr Lise Hansen, a veterinary homeopath based in London and author of a forthcoming book, The Complete Book of Cat and Dog Health, argues that scientists have shown how homeopathy works. She cites a paper by Luc Montagnier, the French virologist who won a Nobel Prize in 2008 for his role in discovering HIV. The following year, he published evidence of his discovery of “electromagnet signals that are produced by nanostructures derived from bacterial DNA at high aqueous dilutions”. “Mainstream medicine is about chemistry, homeopathy is physics and scientists have only recently begun to study these nanostructures,” Hansen says.

Basically, the reader is left with the impression that homeopathy might be fine after all, and that science will soon be able to catch up with it. In the interest of balance, the journalist thus confused her readers and misled the public.

Why?

Journalists are obviously taught to always cover ‘both sides’ of their stories, and they adhere to this dogma no matter what. In most instances, this works out well, because in most cases there are two sides.

But not always!

When there is a strong consensus supported by facts, science and reproducible findings, the other side ceases to have a reasonable point. There simply is no reasonable ‘other side’ when we consider global warming, evolution, the Holocaust, and many other subjects. Of course, one can always find some loon who claims the earth is flat, or that cancer is a Jewish plot against public health. But these arguments lack reason and integrity – to dish them out without anything remotely resembling a ‘fact check’ is not just annoying but harmful.

Journalists should, in my view, be more responsible, check the facts, and avoid false balance. I know this will often entail much more work, but they owe it to their readers and to the reputation of their profession.

6 Responses to “Scientists have shown how homeopathy works” – journalists’ obsession with ‘balance’

  • You are not alone to think this Prof. From Wipedia:

    “The fairness doctrine of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced in 1949, was a policy that required the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was—in the FCC’s view—honest, equitable, and balanced. The FCC eliminated the policy in 1987 and removed the rule that implemented the policy from the Federal Register in August 2011.

    The fairness doctrine had two basic elements: It required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. Stations were given wide latitude as to how to provide contrasting views: It could be done through news segments, public affairs shows, or editorials. The doctrine did not require equal time for opposing views but required that contrasting viewpoints be presented. The demise of this FCC rule has been considered by some to be a contributing factor for the rising level of party polarization in the United States.

    The main agenda for the doctrine was to ensure that viewers were exposed to a diversity of viewpoints. In 1969 the United States Supreme Court, in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, upheld the FCC’s general right to enforce the fairness doctrine where channels were limited. However, the Court did not rule that the FCC was obliged to do so.The courts reasoned that the scarcity of the broadcast spectrum, which limited the opportunity for access to the airwaves, created a need for the doctrine.

    The fairness doctrine is not the same as the equal-time rule. The fairness doctrine deals with discussion of controversial issues, while the equal-time rule deals only with political candidates.”

    I have no problem with “some scientists say…”, as long as it is clearly stated that (for example) “most other scientists think that group of scientists are very wrong and foolish.”

    That is the only way to be fair.

  • The author has written an equally facile article on herbalism. Such articles serve no useful social purpose. They merely “inform” readers that science says something the public is either ignorant of or ignores; generally the latter.

    One or two science deniers trott out their false beliefs and “arguments”. One or two scientifically informed people trott out the facts and the article grinds to an inconclusive conclusion.

    Money for old rope for the writer. Great result for ignorance: granted equal time, space and respect as science.

  • I agree! Lets censor any dissenting opinions. We cant let people know that Nobel Prize winning scientists disagree with the consensus. It would be dangerous to let people hear these different views. They might start thinking for themselves. Fortunately we now have the Silicon Valley & Chinese tech giants doing our thinking for us. So there wont be any danger of original or deviant thought being allowed on the internet.

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