A network TV health research story that was reckless, veering toward malicious

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HealthNewsReview.org summary of the CBS Early Show segment on blue dye, rats, and spinal cord injury:

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.

Thanks to Craig Stoltz for his thoughtful review of this story.

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August 2, 2009 at 2:50 am

A variant of the Blue M&M Syndrome is when the story concerns something that “may help prevent” some common disease, usually cancer. I propose that this be known as Walnut Syndrome – in honor of this story…

Study in Victoria

January 26, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Haha, I agree as the title of this should be Walnut Syndrome. I am studying Health Science in Victoria Australia and one of my teachers always tells us that if a case study or stat looks or sounds wacky then it most likely is. The key she says is to “ask questions”! For this study the first question like Gary mentioned would be on what subject was this study done on?