Doing an autopsy on a feel-good local TV health news story…and the harms therein

On the Skeptic Ink website, William London, EdD, MPH, a public health professor at California State University, Los Angeles, writes:

“On July 12, 2013, I came upon a video recording and transcript of a typical feel-good local news feature: Local doctor battles cancer through natural healing. It appeared on KGET, the NBC affiliate station in Kern County, California. Here’s the transcript (indented and italicized) with my comments interlaced:

BAKERSFIELD, CA – A local doctor is fighting a deadly cancer diagnosis through natural remedies and spiritual healing. He says he has never felt better.Dr. Boyce Dulan practiced medicine for 33 years. Twenty-two of those years he spent with the Kern County Public Health Department. Now he’s throwing his medical background out the door, focusing on natural healing to fight the battle of his life.The 72-year-old is full of life.

…But perhaps viewers would have been interested in a follow-up story to see how long Dr. Dulan maintained his healing program and avoided use of prescription medication. The only follow-up story I can find from KGET is Dr. Dulan’s obituary including a photo and brief text, but no mention of the optimistic July 12th feature story. He died on September 18th at age 72. …

In other words, on July 12th, KGET gave us an engaging feel-good story suggesting a special outcome, but never gave the follow-up needed to determine whether anything medically extraordinary actually occurred. KGET offered a story of hope and comfort in the face of devastating illness; a story supportive of popular views of natural healing and faith combined with the popular, misleading narrative of a courageous maverick doctor bucking the establishment. Nevertheless, the progression of Dr. Dulan’s cancer turned out not to be unique.

Skeptical inquirers like good stories about real people just as most people do. And many of us appreciate stories of hope. But we differ in an important way from most people: Skeptical inquirers strive to avoid confusing good storytelling with accurate, non-misleading, useful reporting that helps us to distinguish important fact from insidious fiction.”

London ends a long analysis by listing five distinct types of harms – actual or potential harms – from such stories. This ending is similar to my repeated message to journalists:  that there is harm in inaccurate, imbalanced, incomplete health news stories.  It is undoubtedly not intentional or malicious, but there is harm nonetheless.

I have seen dozens of such stories through the years on local TV stations.

London is co-author of the college textbook Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions (ninth edition copyright 2013); the associate editor (since 2002) of Consumer Health Digest, the free weekly e-newsletter of Quackwatch; one of two North American editors of the journal Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies; co-host of the Quackwatch network’s Credential Watch website; a consultant to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.


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