Two papers (one from an American group, one led by an Italian group) in the New England Journal of Medicine about bariatric surgery versus drug therapy for obese people with diabetes drew lots of news attention.
At one end of the spectrum were the TV networks. The NBC/MSNBC version of the story seemed to feel the need to use sensational language in order to sell the importance of the findings. The story included these terms:
“may be a cure”
“Potentially game-changing research”
ABC used “cure” and “breakthrough” in its lead-in. In the body of the story, it featured a soundbite of a doctor telling a surgery patient, “Your days of medication for diabetes are over for the rest of your life.” At the very end of the story, Dr. Richard Besser explained that “we don’t know how long these benefits last” – but that is in direct contrast to what the dramatic soundbite stated as fact earlier in the piece. Who’s editing this stuff?
At the other end of the spectrum were a bunch of stories that didn’t employ any such terms, letting the evidence speak for itself.
CBS News employed none of the sensational terms used by its ABC and NBC competitors. Kudos to them for the restraint.
The New York Times offered the calm headline, “Surgery for diabetes may be better than standard treatment.” Not quite the breathless tone of the one above. In fact, it directly countered the “game-changing” quote with this one:
The president for medicine and science for the American Diabetes Association, Dr. Vivian Fonseca, said the two studies were “not game changers” because they were relatively small.
The Washington Post reminded readers “The studies are continuing to follow the patients for five years to see whether the benefits of surgery are sustained.”
WebMD avoided hype with its headline: “Weight Loss Surgery Puts Diabetes Into Remission.”
NPR reminded listeners/readers:
“The new studies followed only about 200 patients. And while the operations appear to be pretty safe, there can be complications. And the complications can be serious.
“I think we need longer-term follow-up than what was done in these studies to make sure you’re not trading one problem for another,” said Vivian Fonsecaof the American Diabetes Association.
American news consumers and health care consumers are overwhelmed by sensationalism in health care news. We become numb from the repeated use of terms such as cure and breakthrough. Journalists can educate citizens without using sensationalism. They can help readers and viewers and listeners develop critical thinking skills to analyze medical research.
Some of the stories we’ve pointed out above did a far better job of that than others.