Health News Review

A story about spinal cord injury with no certain human application that implied just the opposite.The fact that the study was done on rats does not appears until 2 minutes into a 3-minute segment.

Our Review Summary

The lasting value of this TV news segment on rats, candy and spinal cord injury may be that it allows us to coin a term for a chronic, pernicious condition long affecting health and medical journalism but not previously identified: Blue M&M Syndrome.

This condition may be diagnosed when a story on medical research has no reason to appear before a mainstream health audience absent some irresistibly funny/gross/wacky detail.

In this case it’s the link between a chemical tested in rats with spinal cord injuries and blue M&Ms.

But Blue M&M Syndrome is present in many widely reported stories about scientific studies done on insects, worms, rodents or primates. They often involve mating, a specific food, an unpleasant secretion, or some easily anthropomorphizable behavior such as stress, aggression, napping, or gaining weight.

Studies like this are often scientifically significant, and should be reported for an audience of medical researchers and scientists. They are often cute or curious, allowing them to be reported in a wacky-news segment or a kicker.

But they should not be done straight-faced in a forum where consumers reasonably expect useful, pertinent health information. This is especially true when the studies involve a profoundly disabling medical condition.

What CBS has done is presented a story about spinal cord injury with no certain human application yet implied just the opposite.

The fact that the study was done on lab rats does not appear until 2 minutes into a 3-minute segment. Viewers are never told human applicability is uncertain. In fact, the correspondent said this [emphasis ours]:

So again, more work will be occurring with this. This has to be given within hours of the injury, but it holds a lot of promise for the people who suffer from spinal cord injuries. It’s not just the one injury that matters. It’s the secondary injury that really gets people.

 

Last week the same news program did a segment, "Walk On: New Device Helps Paraplegics Walk Again," which as its title suggests falsely implies a medical device could make the disabled rise from their wheelchairs.

Now it’s a story on how blue M&Ms can prevent permanent disability following spinal cord injuries.

Set aside the unfortunate coincidence that both stories offer similarly false hope to patients with the same serious physical disability.

The point is this journalism is beyond careless. It’s beyond merely indulging trivia out of context to divert morning viewers.

This is reckless, veering toward malicious.


Criteria

Not Applicable

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

Since there is no clinical treatment, reporting costs is not possible.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The segment makes no attempt to describe the benefits of the treatment specifically.

The study suggests that rats with spinal cord injuries given the chemical intravenously were able to walk with a limp afterwards. The control rats were unable to walk at all.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story does cite the memorably photogenic side effect of the treatment on rats–that it turned paws, tail and eyes blue. But it treats that as if it is the only side effect. Is it? And, indeed, isn’t it incumbent on the network to explain that much can go wrong in the leap from animal research to humans? That is a huge potential unknown harm that was given no attention.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

This segment is based on a small study done with a few rats. This is a very low quality of evidence for a story purporting to have consumer health implications.

The fact that this study was done on rats rather than people is not mentioned until 1:54 of a segment less than 3 minutes long.

At no point does the correspondent state that no inference should be drawn about the applicability of the treatment to people.

Satisfactory

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The story veers toward exaggerating the number of people who might be helped by this treatment eventually, by citing 12,000 spinal cord injuries per year.

But the piece as a whole falls short of disease mongering, if just barely.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

No sources of information aside from the published research are used.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The study itself reports, "no effective treatment options [to prevent secondary injury] currently exist for patients with acute spinal cord injury." But the story didn’t discuss that at all.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

There is no treatment based on this laboratory reasearch on rats.

But the segment imples its potential applicability to humans with spinal cord injuries.

The correspondent says the following; it clearly invites viewers to assume human treatment is available or imminent:

So again, more work will be occurring with this. This has to be given within hours of the injury, but it holds a lot of promise for the people who suffer from spinal cord injuries. It’s not just the one injury that matters. It’s the secondary injury that really gets people.

Satisfactory

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The story correctly presents the findings as new, and indicates they build upon a study published 5 years ago.

Not Applicable

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Not Applicable

There does not appear to be a press release associated with this segment.

Total Score: 2 of 8 Satisfactory


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