The devil is in the details – and in TV health news teases

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Teases – those TV news set-up lines that tell you what’s “still to come” after the next commercial – are an important part of how a producer plans a TV newscast.

So important that the popular ShopTalk website and newsletter often features tips on teases. TV news people across the country read this ShopTalk advice every day. Last week they posted a “How To Tease Health Stories” tip. It’s worth nothing that the column was entitled “Marketing Matters” – not “Journalism Matters.” Reading it gives you a good indication of why we may get the kinds of TV health news stories we get. Excerpt:

“When teasing these medical breakthrough stories, remember that the story is about the results of the study, not the technical specifics of the research. If the story is about a breakthrough in birth defects, show healthy kids playing, not researchers. If the story is about a breakthrough in bone density, show people playing tennis or walking with a cane. Don’t focus on the dull clinical study, focus on the how this breakthrough may affect real life.

An alarm should go off in your head when the tease video shows pill bottles, test tubes, lab employees, mice, university campuses, microscopes, glass trays, or bubbling liquid nitrogen tanks. If your tease contains the phrase “researchers at the university of (insert name here),” you have failed.

Analyze the research story and look for its potential benefits down the road. The story isn’t about cholesterol levels, it’s about fewer heart attacks and living longer. The story isn’t about prenatal blood allergies, it’s about happy families with smiling healthy children.”

Problems with this advice:

• local TV news often treats lab findings and mouse study results as if they were immediately applicable to “healthy kids playing” or “people playing tennis” when there may be no immediate human implication or application. But I guess that’s part of the detail of the “dull clinical study” that this advice is urging TV news folks to ignore.

• TV news would lead us to believe – just as the drug ads that appear within TV newscasts do – that each night, conveniently within the 24 hours news cycle, medical research is bringing us breakthroughs for “happy families with smiling healthy children.”

• The story may not be about fewer heart attacks and living longer. It may only be about cholesterol levels – and treating such surrogate end points or risk factors as if they were diseases themselves is what we call disease-mongering. This is potentially really bad advice.

Unfortunately, such stories almost never evaluate the quality of the evidence behind the claims, they fail to evaluate the tradeoff of benefits vs. harms, or to do any reporting beyond reading a news release or a wire service story.

If only someday I would hear a TV health news tease like this:

“Up next, we’re going to tell you why you shouldn’t read too much into a study in this week’s big name journal in our ‘Healthy Skeptic’ feature…..”

One of my favorite quotes is from journalist Daniel Greenberg in his 2001 book, Science, Money and Politics:

“The press, on its own, if it chooses, can make the transition from cheerleaders of science to independent observers. The journalistic trumpeting of medical cures, even though accompanied by sober cautions against optimism, deserves to be severely throttled back in recognition of an unfortunate reality: though news is sold around the clock, major advances in medicine come along infrequently.”

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