Less would have been more.
If the show had aired just the taped news story about a study of probiotics food supplements, viewers would have gotten a mostly balanced view of the findings and the reasons to be cautious about reading much into them.
But the show kept going… with an in-studio conversation with a medical contributor that essentially scuttled the reporter’s work by broadcasting opinions favoring the potential health benefits of foods with probiotics.
The segment is based on a small study of children in China that indicates certain probiotics supplements may lower the risk of colds and flu-like symptoms. While the taped report cautions that the study was done by a company that makes the products, and includes a skeptical doctor, caution and scrutiny are then washed away as the anchor and medical contributor gush over the “good news” that they take as confirming their beliefs about the benefits of probiotics.
On balance, the caveats about the limitations of the new study and the influence of a maker of probiotics over the design and conduct of the study are lost among the endorsements of probiotic food supplements and misstatements of the study results.
Are products labeled as containing probiotics more expensive than other brands? Is the price difference related to any difference in potential benefits? This story doesn’t say.
While the study published in the journal Pediatrics investigated only the potential effects of probiotics on cold and flu-like symptoms in a small number of children in China, in her studio interview, Good Morning America’s medical contributor gushed about the potential for probiotics to produce a myriad of benefits for people of all ages, with merely a whisper here and there about how little evidence exists that these highly-promoted food products actually provide benefits beyond those of a standard healthy diet.
There was no mention of any potential harms.
This story fumbles at the opening whistle and then goes on present a biased view of the strength of the evidence with only weak caveats about how much remains unknown.
In the lead, the anchor errs by saying the study found that probiotics in foods could help fight the flu virus; but the study did not even collect data about flu infections, only colds and flu-like symptoms.
The taped report did point out that the study was done in China and tested just two specific strains of probiotics in children. However, it never mentioned that it included only 326 children; a number so small that there was a statistically significant difference in the ages of children in the placebo and treatment groups. The report highlighted apparently dramatic differences in fever rates, without pointing out the large uncertainties in the results due to the small numbers studied. While the journal article did not include ranges for the fever results, a look at the results for missed days of school indicate the results were very squishy. While on average the children taking probiotics missed one and a half fewer days of school, the 95% confidence interval ranged from almost three days fewer to just a quarter of a day. In other words, based on the data reported in the journal article, it is possible that there was almost no difference in absenteeism between the placebo and treatment groups.
Astonishingly, while the anchor hyped the potential flu-fighting power of probiotics in the lead, viewers were not told that none of these children were vaccinated against the flu. That fact raises serious questions about the relevance of this study to families who vaccinate their children.
The caveats in the taped report were undermined by the studio interview with the medical contributor who repeatedly emphasized her belief that probiotics have benefits for preventing illness, despite the paucity of evidence.
The story did not exaggerate the threat of colds or flu.
The taped report might have earned a satisfactory rating, but it was overwhelmed by the boosterish studio interview.
The taped report included comments from two doctors who were not involved in the study. Viewers were not given any information about their credentials beyond an on-screen display of their institutions; nor was there any information about any links to the food industry. Nevertheless, one of the experts offered a strong statement noting the proven value of other health advice, in comparison to the weak hints this study offered about probiotics.
The report did highlight the fact that the study was launched by a company that makes probiotics, but it could have gone further by noting that company employees also were “involved in the study design, review of the findings after data analysis, and writing of the manuscript.” In other words, this study is the company line, not an independent investigation of the potential value of probiotics.
This rating rewards the taped report for giving the last word to a doctor who stresses the proven value of “getting vaccinated, washing hands, avoiding people who are sick, and if you’re sick yourself or your child is sick, keeping that child at home.”
However, the studio interview largely undercuts that reporting with almost unrestrained endorsements of products with probiotics.
The story and studio interview showed products containing probiotics and advised consumers to check the labels. However, the display and advice were almost worthless, because viewers were not told which specific probiotics were studied, so consumers would have no way of knowing whether the strains shown on product labels have been shown to have any benefits.
There was no claim of novelty.
The taped report and the studio interview included information from other sources.