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.1 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
Reporting on medical topics by daily newspapers in the United Kingdom and Germany, 1999
|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.
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.