A growing public health threat: network TV morning health news segments

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By reviewing health news coverage every day, we are able to see big pictures of clear patterns unfolding that the casual day-to-day news consumer may miss.

One picture is quite clear. The morning health news segments on ABC, CBS and NBC do the following regularly:

• Unquestioningly promote new drugs and new technologies

• Feed the “worried well” by raising unrealistic expectations of unproven technologies that may produce more harm than good

• Fail to ask tough questions

• Make any discussion of health care reform that much more difficult

Here is just some of what we’ve observed, broken down by topics. You can look up any of these on the HealthNewsReview.org website. Probably the easiest way is to go to “Find Reviews” > “By News Organization”, then use the pulldown menu to select the news source.

We apologize for the length of this note, but we thought it was important for you to see the full pattern of what we see unfolding. We give you the “headline” of the story, the date it aired, the star score it received after our review, and a brief excerpt of our review comments.

Obesity & weight loss & thinning

ABC’s Good Morning America

Breakthrough obesity drug

July 21, 2009

Rating: (2 stars out of a possible 5)

Miscasts an experimental obesity Rx as potential “silver bullet” for people wanting to drop a few pounds. Oddly refers to interviewee’s potential conflicts of interest as evidence of expertise. Huh?…

Super shot? Can it cut weight by 25%?
July 14, 2009
Rating: (2 stars out of a possible 5)

Woefully inadequate reporting on animal research on a weight loss drug. Makes the unfounded leap that this is a “promising new drug that could ultimately impact how to control obesity and diabetes.”

Cutting the fat–without incisions: New weight-loss surgery
June 3, 2009
Rating: (2 stars out of a possible 5)

Breathless enthusiasm – not backed by facts about new incision-free approach to weight loss surgery. Story calls it “remarkable” and “exciting” but that results aren’t as good as gastric bypass….

Blasting Inches Off Without Surgery: New Technique to Lose The Fat
January 5, 2009
Rating: (2 stars out of a possible 5)

This story medicalizes a normal state of health – a few additional pounds or inches. The story lacked evidence and data from the alleged 50,000 who’ve had it – an astoundingly poor use of air time

CBS Early Show

The Real Skinny: Liposlim During Lunch?

February 16, 2009

Rating: (0 stars out of possible 5)

What the anchorman calls a “healthy, gorgeous” young woman gets lunchtime lipo with no discussion of evidence or whether insurance covers it. If your premiums went up because she was in your insurance pool, would you be happy?

NBC Today show

Lose weight while you sleep?

February 9, 2009

Rating: (0 stars out of possible 5)

NBC gave 5.5 minutes of free publicity to Glamour magazine’s pseudo-scientific experiment, then made bold, baseless projections that women would “probably add about 7 years to their life”. Amazing.

Paralysis & spinal cord injury

ABC’s Good Morning America

In Christopher Reeve’s footsteps: Young man beats the odds

July 16, 2009

Rating: (2 stars out of a possible 5)

Story focused on one person’s experience but failed to reference any research or provide quantitative data on benefits. No independent expert, no discussion of cost, harms, alternatives or outcomes.

CBS Early Show

Blue Breakthrough? Blue Food Dye Could Help Prevent Spinal Cord Injury

July 28, 2009

Rating: (2 stars out of possible 5)

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 appear until 2 minutes into a 3-minute segment.

Walk on: New device helps paraplegics walk again
July 22, 2009
Rating: (2 stars out of possible 5)

This segment puts a check next to nearly every item on a list of Health Journalism Worst Practices. It calls the device new, revolutionary, miracle. The device is none of these. Terribly misleading.

New medical technologies

ABC’s Good Morning America

The Cutting Edge: Robotic Surgery, Today!

May 5, 2009

Rating: (1 star out of a possible 5)

A few minutes of techno-tainment with inexcusable, almost inconceivable lapses in journalistic hygiene. No discussion of cost, of evidence for benefits or harms, and no independent insight….

The Cutting Edge: Amazing Journey Inside the Brain
May 4, 2009
Rating: (2 stars out of a possible 5)

Another gee-whiz Good Morning America segment that fits their apparent formula: no discussion of costs, no quantification of benefits or harms, and no independent source….

Cutting edge nail cure
April 9, 2009
Rating: (0 stars out of a possible 5)

The advantages were unsubstantiated, the harms unstated and the effectiveness exaggerated. Network TV promoting an off-label use. Disease mongering at its worst. A new low. Stay tuned for lower….

Life-Saving Test: How One Minute Can Save Your Life
March 25, 2009
Rating: (0 stars out of a possible 5)

The story overstated the risk of esophageal cancer and the value of a new approach for direct visualization and biopsy of the esophagus and was a free ad for a local hospital and a manufacturer. Wow….

America’s leading killer – cardiovascular diseases

ABC’s Good Morning America

Medical Breakthrough: Amazing New Heart Valve Procedure

January 7, 2009

Rating: (2 stars out of a possible 5)

One week into 2009, calls this “one of the big medical stories of 2009, “groundbreaking,” and “the biggest thing since the heart transplant.” Unfortunately no data are given to support that….

Heart Health: New Treatments For America’s #1 Killer
March 30, 2009
Rating: (1 star out of a possible 5)

Story on coronary calcium test fails to discuss evidence, cost, or problems with false positive tests. But it hypes the test and disease mongers – telling us it’s a wakeup call we all need. Not so….

CBS Early Show

Three Heart Tests Every Woman Should Know About

June 18, 2009

Rating: (0 stars out of possible 5)

Classic morning show health news garbage – confusing screening and diagnostic tests and confusing viewers. And a glaring error on the CBS website claims that heart CT scans had no radiation! On which planet?…

Heart Score: New Treatment for Heart Failure
February 16, 2009
Rating: (1 star out of possible 5)

The plural of anecdote is not data. Viewers were told one very positive patient story, but nothing about whether that’s a representative outcome. No independent sources. Nothing on harms or costs.

NBC Today show

Today’s Matters of the Heart: Dr. Nancy’s Personal Wake-Up Call

February 4, 2009

Rating: (1 star out of possible 5)

A 6-minute segment almost completely devoid of evidence and data, riding the single personal anecdote of the network’s medical editor. Disease-mongering. Incomplete story on heart CT scans….

This is a dangerous pattern. Such stories do more harm than good to public understanding of health care. This must change.

We continue to offer our help to any news organization that wants it. We have loads of good story ideas to take the place of this pablum – stories that affect individuals’ health, finances and decision-making – all the makings of good news stories.

(This also appeared as a Publisher’s Note on HealthNewsReview.org.)

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