Health Care Reporting Biases

Karen Lee Richards Health Guide
  • An Associated Press article about the placebo effect, particularly as it relates to natural or alternative treatments, is showing up in newspapers and other media across the country this week.  The article, by AP writter Marilynn Marchione, although a tad one-sided, is not the problem.  What I take issue with is the editor's note that precedes the article:

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Ten years and $2.5 billion in research have found no cures from alternative medicine. Yet these mostly unproven treatments are now mainstream and used by more than a third of all Americans. This is one in an occasional Associated Press series on their use and potential risks.

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    Before reading one word of the article itself, we get a strongly biased statement, obviously meant to influence how we interpret the article.  Let's take a closer look at the editor's words.  “Ten years and $2.5 billion in research have found no cures from alternative medicine.”  That statement may be true, but how many cures can you think of that traditional Western medicine has found in the last ten years?   While finding a cure is the ultimate goal for any disease, the fact is most research is actually aimed at finding effective treatments that will reduce or hopefully eliminate some symptoms. 

    Now let's look at that statement from another perspective.  The $2.5 billion dollars mentioned was spent over 10 years and covered dozens of different types of treatments for a wide variety of different diseases.  If you broke that down to dollars spent on one treatment technique for one disease, the amount is actually very small.  On the other hand, the NIH is slated to spend more than $5.7 billion this year alone on cancer research – and that doesn't include the billions spent by pharmaceutical companies and nonprofits.  Yet we still don't have a cure for cancer. 

    Don't get me wrong.  I know we've made important medical advances in diseases like cancer.  And I don't begrudge one penny spent on cancer research – or any other disease for that matter.  I just resent the insinuation that we've wasted billions of dollars on research for alternative treatments that don't cure when traditional treatments don't cure either, despite many more billions being spent on their research. 

    The second sentence doesn't get much better.  “Yet these mostly unproven treatments are now mainstream and used by more than a third of all Americans.”  The words “mostly unproven” are unnecessary but have been thrown in to strengthen the impression that alternative treatments are worthless.  Note that including the word “mostly” keeps the statement technically accurate because some alternative treatments have indeed been proven to be effective, despite their minimal research funding. 

    I'm disappointed in the AP.  They claim their mission “is to be the essential global news network, providing distinctive news services of the highest quality, reliability and objectivity with reports that are accurate, balanced and informed.”  This editor's note is neither objective nor balanced.  I guess I shouldn't be surprised.  In recent years I've watched more and more news organizations become blatetently biased in their political reporting.  Why should I expect better when they report on other areas? 


  • My point here has nothing to do with whether alternative treatments are good or bad.  My point is that reporting on health-related issues should be free of bias.  Opinion is fine, but it should be clearly defined as personal opinion, not stated as fact.  Unfortunately, even when it comes to health reporting, we have to apply the doctrine of caveat emptor – let the buyer (or in this case the reader) beware.

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Published On: November 11, 2009