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Mainstream Media’s Sub-Par Health Coverage, Part 2

I recently wrote about an experience that I had with a reporter (Erica Mitrano) who interviewed me about energy healing at Calvert Memorial Hospital in southern Maryland. Erica was very friendly and inquisitive, and we had a nice conversation about the lack of scientific evidence supporting any energy healing modality. I thought it would be fun to post what we had discussed at SBM, and then wait to see what trickled down into the finished piece.

When the final article appeared I was very disappointed. Not only was I not quoted, but there was no skeptical counter-point at all. The story read like an unquestioning endorsement of junk science, and I wondered if it was worth it to continue speaking to journalists to offer expert advice. It seemed to me that this experience was emblematic of all that’s wrong with health reporting these days. (Just ask Gary Schwitzer – who has recently given up on reviewing TV health stories in mainstream media since they are generally so inaccurate.)

But I want to apologize to Erica, because part of the problem in this case was her editors.  The online version of her story was substantially different from her printed version – and in this case the printed version was much more balanced. About 1/3 of an entire newspaper page (The Enterprise, Friday, February 19, 2010, St. Mary’s County, Maryland) was devoted to my counter arguments. Here’s a short excerpt:

“I’m honestly not aware of any scientific evidence that supports anything beyond the placebo effect with the energy healing modalities, including Reiki,” Jones said. “There is nothing we can measure that suggests there is a special force that needs to be balanced…”

Success stories are anecdotal and can generally be accounted for by a person getting better from something like an infection on his own. Patients tend to report success from energy work more often for subjective ailments, especially pain and emotional problems, she said…

Jones opposes untested therapies’ inclusion in hospitals.

“I think it’s misleading to the patients because they’re going to a hospital, they’re trusting the hospital will offer them treatments that have proof that they work and they don’t realize that these nurses are offering nonscientific therapies,” Jones said.

“I would rather that the nurses be given time to sit and talk to patients, go into the room and say, ‘Mrs. Smith, I’m sure you feel completely stressed out right now, and I don’t blame you.’ That would be more effective than concocting this pseudoscientific excuse for having nurses lay hands on people when really the patient needs a listening ear and a compassionate soul to talk to.”

But I think this case still serves as a reminder that traditional media’s approach to health story coverage can be flawed. Specifically, my concerns are these:

1. “Balance” – While I recognize the importance of impartiality in news reporting, the quest for balance can go too far. Some facts are incontrovertible, so regularly insisting that the truth is “somewhere in between” can be both misleading and dangerous.

2. Editing – Reporters can write an excellent piece of journalism that becomes nearly unrecognizable after their editors are finished with it.

3. Inability to crowd source – The advantage of blogs is that readers can correct the original article or add their valuable views. Without a community of virtual editors/contributors, any one news article is limited by the point of view and skills of the journalist.

4. Sensationalism – Mainstream media outlets are slaves to ratings and traffic. This means that they are under constant pressure to exaggerate the truth or misrepresent scientific research. Attention-grabbing headlines sell papers, and “good science makes bad television.” So readers must take what they read with a grain of salt.

5. Author credentials – Sadly, highly trained science journalists are being laid off in record numbers due to the economic realities of the failing newspaper business. Remaining writers often do not have the depth of experience to handle complicated health topics and do not represent important scientific nuances correctly.

In conclusion, I’d like to thank Erica for the opportunity to weigh in on energy healing and apologize for any distress that my blog post (expressing my frustration with the apparent bias revealed in the final online article) may have caused her. I know that Erica received a pointed letter of complaint regarding the story because of my post. I think it’s a good thing that people care enough about bias and misinformation to send formal complaints… because when those cease, we’ll be in serious trouble!

Posted in: Energy Medicine, Science and the Media

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8 thoughts on “Mainstream Media’s Sub-Par Health Coverage, Part 2

  1. Joe says:

    At the bottom of Mitrano’s article you cite is a link to another that focusses on your comments:
    http://www.somdnews.com/stories/02192010/indymor173133_32233.shtml

  2. Scott says:

    The insistence on “balance” when the facts are firm seems to me to be related to the strong strain of anti-intellectualism in modern society, where not only are experts on a subject not trusted to know what they’re talking about, but are actually often considered more likely to be wrong because of their expertise.

    Expecting reporters to be able to reliably evaluate the evidence to determine that reiki is sufficiently bogus to not deserve “balance” is a bit steep of a hill to climb, but precisely for that reason they need to trust the people who DO have the knowledge!

    It would be very interesting to know whether there is indeed a causal link, and if so in which direction it goes.

  3. wertys says:

    In the specific case of Reiki, it is even more problematic because the Cochrane reviews of Reiki appear to have been done by practising Reiki proponents, and they torture the syntax to generate barely defensible positive statements which I’m sure they are aware can then be freely quoted out of contex. The weighty reputation of Cochrane reviews has been recognized by sCAM artists and in many cases they are trying to buy in to the reviews and generate either an apparent lack of evidence for anything (concluding that nothing is helpful therefore you might as well try sCAM therapies) or spurious positive systematic reviews which bank on time-poor health professionals just reading the conclusion without checking the review itself.

    If bastions of EBM like Cochrane are not reliable on these topics, how on earth is a reporter supposed to get an unbiased view?

  4. BillyJoe says:

    wertys,

    “If bastions of EBM like Cochrane are not reliable on these topics, how on earth is a reporter supposed to get an unbiased view?”

    By reading the “results” section and ignoring the “author’s conclusion” section.
    …oh wait, you said reporter.

  5. provaxmom says:

    Sort of related……my one son developed a minor rash (molloscum contagiosum (sp?) ) and has seen the pediatrician. Last night I realized it was getting worse, so in true “warrior mom” fashion, I took to the internet. Among the sites that came up was the Mayo clinic site. For each health disease/disorder they list, they have a link for “alternative therapies”. I found that to be very disappointing. Mind you, when I clicked on it, it just told me that I needed to discuss all alternative remedies with my doctor, but I am disappointed that they would even give equal time and a link.

  6. BillyJoe says:

    “my one son developed a minor rash (molloscum contagiosum (sp?) ) and has seen the pediatrician.”]

    Off topic, but…

    This is one of the reasons why health care is so expensive in America. In Australia, a paediatrician would never get to see a case of molluscum contagiosum. You have to go through a GP to get a referral to a specialist and your GP would not refer you with such a trivial condition because he would be able to diagnose the rash and tell you all about it himself.

  7. edgar says:

    Ped’s are considered primary care here.

  8. BillyJoe says:

    ….um, yes, obviously I knew that, otherwise I would not have made that comment.

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