What's New in Print?

Christopher Lukas Health Guide
  • Last week, I asked the question, Do you trust what you read in the newspapers?

    This week, I want to follow up with a slightly different question: How do you know when to trust what you read?

  • First, I look at the source itself. If it’s a wholly commercial one – trying to sell me something – I am highly skeptical.

  • Second, I look at who is quoted in the article or on the web site. Is it from a reputable organization, or from a hospital or institution I’ve never heard about?

  • Third, I look at how many authorities are quoted.

  • Fourth, I look for references to studies that I can go check, myself, or that ring a bell as to authenticity or reputation.

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  • Finally, I look for caveats—those little remarks that often appear most of the way through an article, suggesting that there isn’t enough information yet, or that there are studies in another part of the world that contradict this one.

  • And so on.

    I thought I’d take two recent articles and check them against my five criteria.
    The first was in the Los Angeles Times. Written by Susan Brink, it was headlined:

    Fighting Prostate Cancer by Doing Nothing
    Treatment itself can be dangerous. And, scientists now say, it might not be necessary -- even for younger men.

    In and of itself, this is not a new idea. I’ve referred to the concept of “watchful watching” before. It’s got a new – and more vigorous– name: “active surveillance.” But the concept is basically the same: don’t assume that “getting it over with,” i.e., getting some kind of treatment for your prostate cancer right away, is the best and safest course of action. Think about all the possible side effects, and think about what is known about treatment – for instance, the lack of proof that any treatment for a Stage I or II prostate cancer will add a single day of life to you, or save you from pain later on.

    To see if this article was believable, or just another way of selling newspapers, I first took measure of where it was published: the Health section of the L.A. Times, not a shoddy newspaper.

    Second, who is quoted. At first, I wasn’t impressed. Such phrases as, “a Marina del Rey” oncologist, or “Such monitoring of early disease, increasingly debated in the inner sanctum of medical meetings,” led me to feel the research for the article was a little haphazard. But down towards the middle, a urologist from UC, San Francisco (a top hospital and medical school) is quoted; then, a urologist at the University of Toronto.

    My third qualification, you will recall, is how many authorities are quoted. In this short article, four or five crop up.

    Fourth, are there studies I can check myself. The article refers to ongoing studies at both the Canadian and U.S. Institutes of cancer.

    Finally, the caveat factor. Instead of throwing in a few doubts, the article is nothing itself but a doubt: it casts the usual treatment for prostate cancer in dubious light, and makes several common-sense suggestions (e.g., getting a second opinion; asking questions of every physician who wants to treat you) you can follow up on.

  • In short, it seems a balanced and careful article. You can find it yourself in the July 3, 2006 edition of the L.A. Times.
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    The second article I bring to your attention is one the same week, published in the New York Times.

    It quotes a new study from Cancer, the journal of the American Cancer Society, in which two doctors from the University of Colorado discovered that American men make up their mind about the treatment they prefer for prostate cancer quickly, emotionally, and – worse – “base their decisions on anecdotes or inaccurate impressions, and stick with their decisions even when given scientific information that might cause them to change their minds.”

    This is not the kind of article that can be put up against my criteria, but is it one that would cause me to be interested in pursuing the subject further? You bet. For two reasons: One, because it fits neatly in with the L.A. Times article; Two, because everyone I speak to about prostate cancer, with few exceptions, behaves as the study suggests.

    Two different kinds of articles, both of which really make me sit up and take notice.
Published On: September 13, 2006