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

When the media does not adhere to reporting guidelines regarding so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), this may deceive or mislead consumers about the safety and efficacy of these practices. A team of researchers analyzed whether Serbian online media adheres to reporting guidelines and described dominant psychological appeals used to promote TM/CAM.

They conducted a content analysis of 182 articles from six news and six magazine websites, published July–December 2021. Biologically based treatments – predominantly herbal products – were the most common (205/289 practices). SCAM practices were claimed to:

  • improve general health (71/386 claims),
  • alleviate respiratory problems,
  • boost the immunity,
  • and detox the body.

The tone was overwhelmingly positive, with most of the positive articles (145/176) neglecting to disclose the potential harms of SCAM. Few articles provided a recommendation to speak with a healthcare provider (24/176). Articles tended to appeal to SCAM’s long tradition of use (115/176), naturalness (80/176), and convenience (72/176). They used vague pseudoscientific jargon (105/176) and failed to cite sources for the claims that SCAM use is supported by science (39/176).

The authors concluded that given that SCAM use may lead to harmful outcomes (such as adverse events, avoidance of official treatment or interaction with it), Serbian online media reports on SCAM are inadequate to assist consumers’ decision-making. Our findings highlight issues that need to be addressed towards ensuring more critical health reporting, and, ultimately, better informed SCAM consumption choices.

A long time agao, in 2000, we did a similar survey. We compared what UK newspapers published about SCAM and conventional medicine to what German papers did. We found that the proportion of articles about SCAM seems to be considerably larger in the UK (15% v 5%), and, in contrast to articles on medical matters in general, reporting on SCAM in the UK was overwhelmingly positive. I wonder whether, 23 years later, the situation has changed.

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