Study shows flaws in TV news health stories

Physicians can help improve medical coverage on television by forming relationships with local stations, experts say.

By — Posted April 3, 2006

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On local news programs, four TV stations aired stories that discussed how lemon juice might be useful in preventing the spread of HIV during sex.

Three of the reports failed to say that the research did not involve humans. One broadcast got the study wrong and said the juice may be a substitute for "costly HIV" medications.

It's the kind of TV health coverage that makes physicians cringe and exemplifies how poorly local newscasts report medical stories, researchers say.

That type of reporting happens frequently, according to a new study concluding that local TV stations do a poor job of providing useful information in health stories and sometimes make mistakes that give viewers potentially dangerous advice.

"It's very scary. Fortunately, the majority of the stories were not potentially harmful. They just weren't very useful," said lead study author James Pribble, MD, a lecturer in the department of emergency medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, which conducted the study with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Researchers reviewed 2,795 news broadcasts that aired on 122 TV stations in the nation's top 50 media markets in October 2002. Newslab, a facility at UW-Madison that originally studied local TV coverage of political campaigns, compiled the newscasts. The study's findings appeared in the March issue of the American Journal of Managed Care.

Local television aired 1,799 health stories, which accounted for 11% of the news portion of late-evening newscasts. The median story airtime was 33 seconds. Breast cancer and West Nile virus were the two most common topics in health coverage, probably because October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and West Nile was a new topic at the time, the study said.

Among the stories about disease, few news reports recommended actions viewers could take, detailed how common the disease was or cited sources such as medical journals. Most stories on West Nile virus reported the number of deaths and infections but did not put the illness in perspective, researchers said.

"There's room for improvement," Dr. Pribble said.

Physicians should be aware of problems in TV health reporting because it may influence patient care, the study said. The potential impact of the report is great because local TV news is the No. 1 source of information for most Americans. About three in four Americans said they acted on health information obtained from the media.

Don't know doctors

Part of the problem in local TV health reporting is that reporters don't know the medical community well enough and don't understand which authorities to interview on specific topics, said Peter Ostrow, MD, PhD, associate professor of pathology and neurology at the University of Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Dr. Ostrow said 30 seconds also isn't much time to explain information thoroughly.

"It's very difficult to do well because of those constraints, and it's done less well than it could be by nonphysicians who don't really comprehend the story well enough to be telling it," he said.

Many stations don't use physicians as reporters. And many medical stories neglect to include one key thing, according to Boca Raton, Fla. orthopedic surgeon Jeffrey Minkoff, MD.

"The responsible thing is to tell [viewers] that they should check with their physician," said Dr. Minkoff, chair of the public relations committee of the Illinois-based American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.

Doctors should get involved

Dr. Ostrow knows firsthand the limitations of TV reporting. He's been a medical reporter for Buffalo, N.Y., station WIVB since 1988. He got involved with the station after it went to his medical school seeking a physician to cover health stories.

"When a physician presents a story, it is more likely to be more accurate than when a nonphysician does it," Dr. Ostrow said.

The best way for physicians to improve news coverage is to form relationships with their local stations. That means making themselves available to reporters to help put health and medical topics in perspective, the study said. Some physicians might contact TV stations to offer their assistance.

After a medical reporter left KMOV in St. Louis a few years ago, Ira Kodner, MD, spoke to the station's general manager, a friend, about using a doctor for the job. Now Dr. Kodner is the CBS affiliate's medical correspondent, a position that allows him to reach thousands of people he never would through private practice.

"I take big, complicated things and make them understandable," said Dr. Kodner, professor of surgery at Washington University School of Medicine and director of the university's Center for the Study of Ethics & Human Values. "It's a huge opportunity to really communicate to people."

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External links

"Medical News for the Public to Use? What's on Local TV News," American Journal of Managed Care, March (link)

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