Local TV news sweeps period bubbles with “breakthroughs”

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Gary Schwitzer is publisher of HealthNewsReview.org.  He started his career in local TV news 44 years ago in Milwaukee before moving on to Dallas and then CNN.  He tweets as @garyschwitzer or with our project handle @HealthNewsRevu.

Another local TV news sweeps period ended last week.  That means, as a Slate article described it, a time when TV networks and local stations “rely on shameless stunts to get viewers to tune in. Couch potatoes know that broadcasters use the viewership numbers collected during sweeps to set advertising rates for the rest of the year.” The latest sweeps period was February 2 through March 1.

You don’t need a calendar to know when you’re about to be “swept.”  You can tell by the TV news promotions, teases, and stories.  Health care and research news becomes familiar fodder during this time.

February fever, March madness in TV news sweeps time

I live in the Twin Cities and was treated to a double dip of breakthroughs during sweeps.

The NBC station, KARE-11 (a Tegna, Inc. company) proclaimed breakthroughs in organ transplants and in cancer research during this last sweeps period. But sweep your brains clear before you jump to any conclusions about the breakthroughs.

In mid-February, the station posted, “U of M cancer breakthrough amazes researchers.”

It was a story on dog research at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.  The story made clear that the drug in question had not been tested yet in people.  And there were caveats about how far away this might be from any possible human implication or application. But the story did allow one of the researchers to say, “The drug has potential to help people with a variety of cancers.”  The proclamations of breakthrough (in the lead-in and in the station graphics) and “potential across many cancers” should be tempered with some discussion of how often comparable animal trials looked very promising at such an early stage, and how many never panned out in people. The researchers are in a position to provide that context. Finally, if promising dog research had been reported in neighboring Iowa or Wisconsin, would it have been reported by KARE as a breakthrough? That’s often a helpful test to apply before making sensational claims about hometown research.

From dogs to pre-rodent research.  People?  Well……

Two weeks later, the station also proclaimed an “organ transplant breakthrough” in University of Minnesota research, stating that researchers “may be on their way to eliminating the need for an organ transplant list.” Really? That got my attention.  Only at the very end of the story was it revealed that “Researchers say they will test this on rodent organs before they use it on human organs.”  In other words, this is extremely preliminary basic research – far too early to be talking about eliminating an organ transplant list. It’s important and intriguing research.  But a breakthrough?  I’d ask a similar question as with the earlier KARE story. If this research had come out of a lab in neighboring Iowa or Wisconsin, would KARE have cared enough to call it a breakthrough? Of course not.  It wouldn’t have been reported at all. Unless, of course, they got a free news time-filling feed from another Tegna-owned station elsewhere.

Note:  What the researchers themselves said in the edited interview excerpts was reasonable, with no discernible hype.  It was the framing of the story by KARE that was careless.

When I see stories like these, I always think of critically ill people I’ve known and how they latch on to any news of breakthroughs.  People awaiting – or having had – organ transplants, and people with cancer, may be harmed by sensational story framing.  They need facts, context, and data.  Not big screen graphics trumpeting breakthroughs.  You can report these same stories in far more helpful and unsensational ways.  We’re trying to help.  And in KARE’s case, we’re right across town. One of your competitors has asked for our help.  You could learn from our site or give us a call sometime. It won’t cost you a thing.

From Minneapolis to Los Angeles to Albuquerque and beyond…

KARE-11 was not alone in over-promising.

    • CBS2/KCAL Los Angeles promised a diabetes cure.  This will come as news to diabetes researchers.

    • KOB 4 in New Mexico proclaimed a University of New Mexico research “breakthrough on aging symptoms” – in mice.  Comments left by people on the KOB website show some of the wisdom of the crowds:
      • “These things are always quite a ways off. Drug development is very complicated, very costly,” (quoting the researcher in the story). This is kind of like the statement I’ve been hearing going back at least fifty years that “fusion is now just ten years from being a reality. Keep giving us research dollars”.
      • I can see it now, “Time makes you old”….. Now give them another $1m grant.

We’ll stop there although we could keep adding to the list.  Tell us what kind of health breakthroughs you’ve seen recently on your local TV news.

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