Health News Review

The reason we have dedicated ourselves to this project is that we believe that health care news can influence people – and it can either help them or hurt them.  In the crush of meeting their daily quotas, journalists – and their news organizations – may sometimes forget that what they report may influence individual decision-making. Here’s a case in point.

A reader wrote to me that he’d received an email about a story produced by CBN-TV (the Christian Broadcasting Network) about the benefits of coconut oil for Alzheimer’s Disease.

This man wrote to me:

“I have a brother recently diagnosed with dementia. Our hopes took a giant leap.  On further reading my hopes nosedived when reading the critique of the coconut oil treatment. There were too many unanswered questions about how (the doctor in the video) reported how her husband was treated.  Maybe it was just to sell a book.”

Well, such book promotions work – and this man, indeed, bought the book before he did his homework.

The story is about a doctor treating her own husband’s dementia – which she called “a type of diabetes of the brain.”  The story weaves a tale of what ketones from coconut oil can do.  The reporter says that after two weeks of adding coconut oil to his diet, the man had “stunning improvement.” Of course, there is a book behind this.  The doctor wrote, “Alzheimer’s Disease:  What If There Was a Cure?”

Look at this one screenshot from the story:

 

The story also says that coconut oil is a “natural antibiotic that also helps kill viruses like HIV and herpes viruses.”

No evidence – no data – was provided to back up any of these bold claims. The story ran almost 6 minutes – an eternity in a TV story – so there was plenty of time to provide evidence.

The man who wrote me finally did some homework and he says that what he found “hit me between the eyes.  There are gobs of web sites promoting coconut oil and many stating it helped their loved ones.  I truly hoped it did but am still skeptical.  About CBN-TV, well, when they tell you something you want to believe they are great.  Then when you find out they are just reporting something without authentication,  you realize they are just filling a time slot.”

But journalists – you’re not just filling a time slot or filling space or meeting the expected story output quota:  your stories may help or harm, inform or misinform.

Related content: About a year ago, we criticized a Denver Post story, “Coconuts are busting out all over.”

 

Comments

LW posted on February 10, 2012 at 10:13 am

While I’m not someone who thinks coconut oil is the cure for Alzheimer’s, I do think discounting what Mary Newport said so offhandedly is arrogant. She began treating her husband with coconut oil because some experimental treatment programs used medium chain fatty acids in an attempt to treat the disease. The fact that her husband showed improvement is statistically insignificant, of course. But that doesn’t make her results invalid. Furthermore, Dr. Kieran Clarke from Oxford University, who was also quoted in the video, doesn’t strike me as some nefarious type just trying to make a buck (neither does Newport for that matter) but obviously you are the better judge of that. Am I going to rush out and buy stock in coconut oil, thinking it’s the next big cure? No. But I might buy a jar or two if I had a loved one suffering from the disease, and as far as risk goes, I think it’s pretty dang low.

    Gary Schwitzer posted on February 10, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Thanks for your comment. But please note: this post was about the JOURNALISM involved and about the reaction of a man whose brother has dementia. At the beginning, throughout, and at the end, I focused on the JOURNALISM involved. That’s what we do on this site: we review health care journalism. So I didn’t discount Dr. Newport one bit. If you think the man whose brother has dementia was arrogant, that is your opinion. I think it’s valid to hear his reaction, just as I allowed your comment herein.

      LW posted on February 10, 2012 at 10:40 am

      You’re welcome. But of course I didn’t think the man whose brother had dementia was arrogant. I actually thought he was open-minded. He heard of something and considered trying it.

      Rather, I thought the tone of this article was arrogant. And since it is about journalism, as you say, then let’s look at the article again.

      You did discount Mary Newport. You implied her motivation was about making a buck. I don’t know her, so maybe that’s true, but it was pure speculation on your part. You didn’t provide sales figures or ask where the money goes. You did not interview her yourself. And it appears you did not look up facts about prior Alzheimer’s research on ketones. (Or perhaps that was not included in the piece). I’m not a fan of CBN reporting, don’t get me wrong. And this video reported on a lot of unsubstantiated claims—a big problem, I agree. But discounting what people have to say, like you did with Newport, is not good journalism either.

      Gary Schwitzer posted on February 10, 2012 at 11:01 am

      You infer implication that was neither intended nor expressed. It was the man whose brother had dementia who wrote “Maybe it was just to sell a book.” He bought the book, regrets it, and I thought that was a valid perspective to post – again, just as I’ve allowed you to post your perspective.

      I’m sorry if you thought the tone of the article was arrogant. No such tone was intended.

      For 6 years, over more than 1,600 stories, we have applied 10 criteria to the review of stories about health care interventions. Several of the criteria address how well the story quantified harms and benefits, and how well the story evaluated the quality of the evidence. This story did none of that.

      That was our point.