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The NY Times ‘Well’ section is unwell

Michael Joyce produces multimedia at HealthNewsReview.org and tweets as @mlmjoyce

Earlier this week, just in time for flu season, the ‘Well’ section of the New York Times (a lifestyle-focused part of their health section) offered this 233-word slice of pap:

An Upbeat Mood May Boost Your Flu Shot’s Effectiveness

I won’t burden you by going in-depth on why this headline is particularly misleading; suffice to say it references a single observational study of 138 people (using surrogate markers and post hoc analysis) that does not establish a causal relationship between mood and flu vaccine efficacy.

[See more in our toolkit: Observational studies: Does the language fit the evidence? Association vs. causation]

Post hoc analysis – labeled ‘data mining’ by critics – involves looking for patterns not specified in the original study design, with hopes of finding interesting patterns. However, these new patterns can easily be attributable to chance alone.

So why would a well-respected newspaper turn such inconclusive research into such a provocative headline if there’s very little to support it?

And what do they expect readers to do with this information? Wait until they’re in a good mood before going in for a flu shot? Or, worry that their flu shot may not work since they felt grumpy the day they got it? Such misunderstandings are very real possibilities when alluring headlines aren’t supported by adequate background information or context.

We’ve seen this before in the NY Times ‘Well’ section. Here are some examples:

  • Some Fruits are Better Than Others – in which cause-and-effect statements were made suggesting that certain fruits were more beneficial for type 2 diabetes than others. Problem is, the study referenced was an observational study which precludes making such statements.
  • For Fitness, Push Yourself – sounds good right? But the data cited came from a mouse study and applying them to humans was an unjustifiable leap.
  • Walnuts for Weight Loss? – an industry-funded study of 9 people over 10 days doesn’t justify writing: “A handful of walnuts may be an effective weight loss tool.”

Remember: this ‘Well’ feature is part of the Health section of one of the largest circulating papers in the world. And this is misinformation.

What’s striking about this for me is that some of the best health care reporting I’ve read comes from other parts of the Times’ Health section. What is it about the ‘Well’ section? Are the editorial standards for evidence-based background materials different?

Regardless, it needs to change. Articles like those listed above run the risk of undermining the legitimate health care reporting that the Times excels at. If someone is arguing that these articles are clickable — and therefore, potentially popular — then the price for that will inevitably be a loss of credibility. Say nothing of the consequences of spreading misinformation by way of misleading headlines.

The Times proud motto is a good one: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

These articles are unfit … and the ‘Well’ section is unwell.

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