A clear pattern of imbalanced screening stories by ABC News

Only when you track health news every day, as we have done for years, can you point to patterns of practice by certain news organizations.

We have data to point out which news organizations are more likely to report from news releases.  We have data to point out which news organizations are more likely to offer critical analysis and scrutinize claims.

And we know that this week’s ABC hype of reporter Bill Weir’s heart scan is not an isolated case for that network. (But it was extraordinary; a leading cardiologist wrote to us that the piece was the worst he’s ever seen.)

  • In June of 2011, the network aired what one of our expert editors called “an amazingly unbalanced report” on lung cancer screening – a piece so bad that ABC apparently pulled the video off its website within hours after posting it.
  • In August of 2011, ABC News’ senior health and medical editor, Dr. Richard Besser, said this on the air: “Before you go on a cholesterol medication, I want you to ask your doctor about this: A coronary artery calcium test.” Re-read our critical analysis of Bill Weir’s story if you need a primer on what’s missing or incomplete in that recommendation. And, by the way, since when do “Senior health and medical editors” – that means “journalist” – give advice to viewers/readers?
  • In November of 2010, in our review of 8 stories on a lung cancer screening study, ABC News had the least balanced report. Its lead-in graphic called this a “breakthrough.” Contrast that with the NPR expert interviewee who said it’s too early to know if this is ready for prime time. And ABC used the tired “Holy Grail” line. It featured conflicted CT scan advocate Dr. Claudia Henschke crying over the news. It used the word “cure” and featured a man it said was “one of the lives she (Henschke) saved.”
  • In May of 2010, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, with excitement in his voice, announced a “brand new technology approved just 3 weeks ago by the FDA.” It was a story about a tiny camera inside the coronary arteries. ABC called it a new “cutting edge device.” and a “new technology that could save your life.” One expert wrote that the “new” technology was at least 8 years old and that “the million dollar question is not if it makes pretty pictures, but rather what does it add to the cost of the procedure and will it improve outcomes?”
  • In September of 2009 we reported how ABC’s on-air opinion and rhetoric  on prostate cancer screening clashed with the recommendations of major scientific and medical organizations.
  • Also in September of 2009, ABC’s Good Morning America failed to challenge former President Bill Clinton’s wild statement that because of what’s now known about breast cancer genetic variations – females “should be tested as soon as possible after they’re born – young girls, for example, for breast cancer.” Clinton went on to predict that someday we would go in for our annual checkup and “stand in a cone and our bodies will be scanned and now submicroscopic tumors will be picked up.” No actual medical expert appeared to address that.  Of course, Clinton’s prediction is very much in line with ABC’s prediction this week about “6 Devices That Could Change the Standards of Medical Care.” So the consistency in ABC’s editorial handling of new screening technologies is not surprising.
  • In March of 2009, ABC’s Good Morning America anointed another “life-saving test” – promoting it as “How one minute can save your life.”  Our reviewers said the story failed to make the case that the approach can increase early detection or that early detection will lead to reduced mortality. A leading gastroenterologist wrote to us about the ABC story, describing it as “disservice to the public…distorted…sensationalized…served fear and commercialized interests.”
  • In October, 2006, ABC’s Dr. Timothy Johnson, while reporting on a lung cancer screening trial, offered his own opinion on the air, declaring that he “would probably get a scan” if he were at high risk for lung cancer.

We’ve seen similar examples on CBS, NBC and CNN.  But the clear, consistent recurring theme of ABC’s coverage raises questions about whether there is, indeed, an editorial bias for promoting screening tests. And if one exists, what is the source or what are the sources?  There are very smart people working at ABC News.  How can one explain such a clear pattern unless it is deliberate?

The examples above touch on screening for breast, prostate, and lung cancers – and for heart disease.  So the topic range affected is broad.

The individuals involved in these cited stories include the ABC World News Tonight and Good Morning America – cutting across editorial units and day parts.

Those individuals include general assignment reporters, physician-medical editors, and anchors – broad-based representation.  We have no idea what’s going on with assignment editors, producers, writers and behind-the-scenes people.

All we know is what we see on the air.  And it’s not a balanced picture.  And it’s not one that supports or promotes fully informed, shared decision-making on screening issues.  That’s not only not good journalism; it’s not in the public’s best interest. It’s potentially harmful. It does not reflect a concern for health policy issues or health care costs.  So it is not informing the public debate.  It is advocacy for more testing and newer technologies – at a time when evidence increasingly shows that Americans should be educated that in health care “more is not always better and newer is not always better.”


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Nancy's Point

January 19, 2012 at 10:19 am

It’s frightening and irresponsible to say the least. Thanks for being a great “watchdog.”


January 19, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Knowingly or unknowingly (giving the benefit of doubt) ABC News is stooping down to the level of tabloid journalism in these stories making them sensational to sell their air time. It not only creates false hope and fear in the public and also leads to disappointment among the people who suffer from those problems- Irresponsible medical journalism from ABC News!