Conflicting and crusading news coverage of colonoscopies

An important study was published this week showing some of the limitations of colonoscopy.

Journalists’ reactions to the story were – predictably – all over the map.

The New York Times reported under the headline, “Colonoscopies miss many cancers, study finds.” Excerpt:

“Instead of preventing 90 percent of cancers, as some doctors have told patients, colonoscopies might actually prevent more like 60 percent to 70 percent.

“This is a really dramatic result,” said Dr. David F. Ransohoff, a gasteroenterologist at the University of North Carolina. “It makes you step back and worry, ‘What do we really know?’ ”

Dr. Ransohoff and other screening experts say patients should continue to have the test, because it is still highly effective. But they also recommend that patients seek the best colonoscopists by, for example, asking pointed questions about how many polyps they find and remove. They also say patients should be scrupulous in the unpleasant bowel cleansing that precedes the test, and promptly report symptoms like bleeding even if they occur soon after a colonoscopy.

(Addendum: Ransohoff’s editorial appears here.)

But ABC News didn’t care for the Times story, posting this online: “Our medical experts were not convinced that there was the need for the urgent sense of the story providing us with scary news about a test that is pretty darn effective.” The ABC posting was under the headline, “The Case for Keeping Colonoscopy.”

Who ever said anything about not keeping colonoscopy? Seems like a false dichotomy if I’ve ever seen one.

And CBS News, predictably, with colonoscopy-advocate Katie Couric at the helm, again crossed the line into non-journalistic crusading, with Couric ending a segment on the study preaching, “And don’t use this study as an excuse not to get screened.”

Huh? Is that journalism?

Healthy skepticism is a missing element in much health news coverage. It is very difficult for some journalists to question the effectiveness of screening tests. And they do a disservice to their audience by touting opinions, not evidence. The classic clash between intuition and science.

Addendum:  The journal also posted this video.


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Roger Sergel

December 22, 2008 at 10:49 am

Goodness Gary, did you really believe that I was auggesting that the study indicated we should get rid of colonoscopy?
While HealthNewsReviews has done a real service by establishing some criteria for objective medical reporting, it is clear that the site has begun to develop a bias of its own.
On several occasions that panel of experts and you have shown a clear preference for the positions of U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.
HNR has an obvious scepticism about the value of screening, which has also been reflected by the NY Times in its coverage of mammography.
So HSR was almost predictable in coming to the defense of the NY Times story on the Canandian study of colonoscopy screening.
And we applied exactly what HNR has called for — scepticism. What we found, in responses from numerous researchers was that the study had a lot of limitations. What we also found was that the tone of the NYT story, was not consistant with how numerous doctors, from numbers of specialties, viewed the benefits of colonoscopy. And the editorial went further than the study.
Even the Times editorial appeared to back away from the conclusions of the study.
The real test of your objectivity is not your ability to detect the techniques of over statement in stories where the data is clear. The real test is to detect it in stories which reflect your position on the data, but still use quotes and copy that create a sense of surprise and excitement when there is none there.
Ask yourself:If that quote from Ransohoff had been used to go beyond the study data, for a conclusion you did not agree with, wouldn’t you have chided the reporter for hyping the story?
Scepticism about the benefits of screening is worthwhile. But your role is to keep the reporting consistent with the data. And on this one, you appeared to forget what your role is.
Roger Sergel
ABC News

The Publisher

December 22, 2008 at 11:05 am

Thanks for the note. What I was suggesting is that your headline that says “The case for keeping colonoscopy” seems to suggest that someone was calling for an abandonment of the practice – which no one seemed to be doing in this case.
There is no bias on We don’t side with the NY Times nor against ABC News. We side with the evidence.
And if the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is not a body worth citing, then you and ABC should be reporting about why that is so. I’d like to see that story.
The Publisher


January 16, 2009 at 3:08 pm

I don’t totally disagree with some media trying to downplay this story. We all know that sensational reporting of a study like this could easily lead to misunderstanding and as a consequence, reduction in screening colonoscopies. It’s very difficult to convey 1) proven benefits of screening while simultaneously conveying 2) screening isn’t as effective at finding cancer as we thought.