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Watch-dogging health news across the pond

Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre

It’s not only U.S. news media outlets that sometimes misinterpret results from medical research or play fast and loose with health claims. Since more and more of us are getting news from non-US sources, it’s only fair that we point out the strengths and weaknesses of these overseas sources as well. Today, stories from The Mail Online, The Guardian and the BBC are as likely to turn up in your search for health news as stories from The New York Times, Fox News and USA Today.

Ben Goldacre, a British physician-researcher, author of the books “Bad Science” and “Bad Pharma” as well as the Bad Science blog, says there are plenty of stories in the British media that are troubling because they omit important information or are otherwise misleading.

He often comments on health stories published in the UK on Bad Science. On occasion, he’s even had to correct misinterpretation of his own published research, as in a Telegraph story that claimed in the headline “Statins have no side effects,” which is not what the study reported at all. The paper found that trial volunteers on placebos and statins both experienced the side effects that would be expected from statin medication.

While there isn’t a HealthNewsReview.org clone in Britain that applies a uniform set of criteria for reviewing articles, there are related watchdog organizations seeking the same outcome: to improve health journalism and better inform the public by setting the record straight on health claims.

NHS Behind the Headlines ScreenshotThe National Health Service’s (NHS) Behind the Headlines provides an “evidence based reactive service” to health news, says Rob Davies, senior health research analyst with Bazian, a division of the Economist Intelligence Unit, which helps produce the project with the NHS. The Department of Health-funded Behind the Headlines site launched 12 years ago following the controversial investigation into the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine-autism study which was eventually retracted by The Lancet. “We aim to avoid similar health hype and misinformation in the future,” says Davies.

When asked for the top three or four weaknesses our British colleagues encountered in health news coverage, Gerard Blair, news editor at NHS Choices, the parent site of Behind the Headlines, provided a list that was all too similar to the issues our HealthNewsReview.org team regularly spot while reviewing health stories.

1. Making causal claims from correlational findings from observational data.
2. Taking findings at face value: i.e. not reporting study limitations, counter interpretations or how the new evidence sits within the wider body of research or expert insight.
3. Making inferences about humans from non-human studies, usually rats.
4. Reporting relative risks without any idea of absolute risk – a doubling of risk could be from 50% to 100% or from 0.000001 to 0.0000002%.

Full Fact, an independent fact checking organization based in London, also serves a watchdog role on health news as part of its mission to check claims made by politicians and the media. It also calls for corrections or retractions. It’s funded by donations from individuals and charitable trusts.

Full Fact recently investigated reported claims on the numbers of lives that could be saved by early cancer diagnosis. It tracked down the source of the estimates (an extrapolation by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, or NICE) and found that both BBC News and The Daily Mail were using divergent but unsubstantiated numbers. The group similarly called out several media outlets this month for claiming that “Poor diets are causing 70,000 premature deaths every year.”

That claim apparently originated with a British Medical Association call to place a 20 percent tax on sugary drinks in an effort to combat obesity in the UK. Upon investigation, Full Fact learned that the number was a squishy 10-year-old figure attributed to the Department of Health, which today doesn’t associate with the number.

As in the United States, the level of trust the British public has in its media is a mixed bag. “I think it varies very widely from person to person, and story to story,” says Goldacre. Of specific media he says, “It’s a broad church, with some very good and some very bad coverage.”

In addition to the British health news watchers, there are several more across Europe, including, but by no means limited to:

  • The Medien-Doktor project in Germany is modeled after the criteria used by HealthNewsReview.org. The project is hosted by the Department of Science Journalism at TU Dortmund University in Dortmund, North Rhine-Westphalia.
  • Medizin Transparent, hosted at Danube University in Krems, Austria, was inspired by the NHS’s “Behind the Headlines” project.
  • Nieuws Checkers, a student project under the direction of Dr. Peter Burger at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, checks facts in the Dutch media.
  • The Observatori de la Comunicació Científica (Observatory of Scientific Communication) is a research center attached to the Department of Communication at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain. Under the leadership of Vladimir Semir, it specializes in the study and analysis of the transmission of scientific, medical, environmental and technological knowledge to society.

No matter where it originates, health news today has the potential to be distributed globally. So it’s good to know there are watchdoggers overseas who are also dedicated to keeping an eye on the health news beat.


Kathlyn Stone is an Associate Editor for HealthNewsReview.org.

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