Tidbits from the vast wasteland of TV health news

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Trudy Lieberman, in Columbia Journalism Review, describes what the magazine calls ineptitude by CNN and Dr. Sanjay Gupta in coverage of health policy news. Excerpt:

“Gupta’s attempt to explain John McCain’s health plan offered a confusing and ultimately misleading picture of how the candidate’s proposals might work. McCain, you may recall, has proposed giving every family a $5,000 tax credit and every individual a $2,500 credit to help buy insurance policies in the commercial market. So it was reasonable for Gupta’s show to ask: How far will five grand really get you? Too bad it didn’t answer the question.

Gupta began by citing a study done a couple of years ago by America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the insurance industry trade association. Gupta was wrong at the outset when he called AHIP “the largest provider of health insurance.” AHIP is a lobbying organization for its insurance company members. It does not–does not–provide health insurance. Gupta said AHIP had found that the average family’s premium was $5,799; he didn’t say that the data had been collected two years ago, and he didn’t explain that any study done by an insurance trade association is necessarily of limited value. (In fact, no organization has adequately studied the so-called individual market, where McCain wants people to buy their policies with his tax credit.) The take-away for viewers, though, was that a family could buy a policy for the amount offered by McCain’s tax credit.

I asked a neutral insurance expert, Paul Fronstin, who directs research for EBRI, the Employee Benefit Research Institute, to translate Gupta’s wonk talk. Fronstin said Gupta “gives a gross oversimplification.”

Instead of all the red-white-and-blue sets and the computer games, CNN should have invested in someone who could explain the issues that are of such importance to voters.”

Within the past two weeks, ABC and NBC have had forgettable health stories, reviewed on HealthNewsReview.org.

ABC’s Good Morning America had a segment on “detox diets.” The review summary of that story:

“A waste of air time. More like free advertising than anything you could describe as journalism. Anecdote, not evidence. No independent expert interviewed. No harms or costs discussed. Awful.”

The NBC Today Show had a segment on vitamin D deficiencies.The review summary stated:

“This segment didn’t tell viewers who had made the new recommendation, how the conclusion had been reached, how great the danger was, or how much benefit they might hope to gain.”

I don’t know why I don’t go into business for myself. It would be so easy to promote one’s product or idea through today’s unquestioning free-for-all, free-advertising that we call TV health news.

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Marilyn Mann

October 29, 2008 at 3:29 pm

The WaPo health section had a story on detox diets not long ago. The reporter and a couple of her family members had gone on a detox diet, based on advice from some website from which she also bought supplements. The story was totally devoid of any independent perspective on the health value of the diet (or lack thereof) and basically was just awful. Embarrassing.

Marilyn Mann

October 29, 2008 at 3:33 pm

Here’s the link: