Confusion reigns on Good Morning America’s ‘complementary natural’ flu remedies report

Kevin Lomangino is the managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org. He tweets as @KLomangino.

Talk of the widespread and dangerous flu circulating this year has the public on edge and hungry for quality information about how to protect themselves.

ABC’s “Good Morning America” isn’t helping with this segment featuring Chief Medical Correspondent Jennifer Ashton, MD, titled “3 complementary natural remedies for the flu.”

It’s a mess of conflicting messages about herbal approaches to managing flu symptoms. And it positions Ashton — an ABC physician-journalist who’s brought in to report the story — as the only expert perspective about the effectiveness of these products.

Where were the independent sources?

Is Ashton — an ob/gyn — uniquely qualified to assess the anti-viral activity of oregano oil, olive leaf, and elderberry?

If not, then why is she the only one offering an opinion about whether or not these products are effective?

A sampling of Ashton’s head-spinning statements about these products make it clear why another voice was necessary.

The segment starts out with Ashton issuing some common sense-sounding disclaimers:

  • “There’s not yet peer-review, evidence-based medicine that supports the use of alternative or complementary therapies in the battle against the flu.”
  • “…especially with children and pregnant women and children, this is not recommended without the consult and advice of your health care provider.”

But then she quickly pivots to discussing oregano oil’s “antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties” and instructing viewers how to take it.

  • “use a couple of drops in water, put it on a spoon, put it under your tongue, swish and then swallow.”

This despite the fact that “we’re not sure, obviously, yet, good data on toxicity.”

Obviously?

I’m not sure that GMA viewers are up to speed on the latest toxicity data for oregano oil.

And if there’s no good toxicity data, and no good evidence that this product works, should you really be instructing viewers about how to dose themselves with it on national TV?

More contradiction and confusion

I cringe when I think of viewers trying to make sense of these jumbled statements.

  • “This has been studied, really, pretty aggressively, and there is some promising work done in the lab.”
  • “There is rigorous science behind these, not yet peer reviewed, evidence-based, but I find it very interesting.”

Studied “pretty aggressively”? With “rigorous science”? But “not yet peer-reviewed” or “evidence-based”?

Got it.

The text version of the story cites “small lab studies” supporting oregano oil and says that olive leaf capsules were described in a study “as having antiviral properties to the respiratory viruses R.S.V. and parainfluenza, although it has not yet been proven to be effective against influenza.”

Maybe the studies on these products have been done “rigorously” as Ashton states. But if they haven’t been performed in humans and haven’t targeted the flu virus, it’s hard to see why they’re worth discussing in a national TV news segment.

The ethical dilemma of TV physician-journalists

Ashton’s closing recommendation about these products is problematic on at least two levels.

  • “I would recommend these in addition to conventional treatments, not in lieu of — that is not recommended.”

First, why would anyone — but especially a physician — “recommend” products that don’t, in Ashton’s words, have “peer-reviewed, evidence-based” support showing that they work and whose potential toxicities are unclear?

Second, why is Ashton making her own health care recommendations to the GMA audience to the exclusion of all others? Her title at the network is “chief medical correspondent” — not “personal medical adviser to all ABC viewers.” Her job is to report on the evidence and deliver the expert opinion of others — not to deliver her own opinions, especially when they’re as muddled as Ashton’s seem to be on this topic.

Some readers may not perceive the problem here but it’s a significant ethical concern for journalists.

When a journalist starts recommending health care interventions it crosses the line from journalism into advocacy. And that’s something that the Association of Health Care Journalists expressly warns against in its Statement of Principles, which say that journalists should:

“Distinguish between advocacy and reporting. There are many sides in a health care story. It is not the job of the journalist to take sides, but to present an accurate, balanced and complete report.”

We’ve written extensively about Ashton’s ethical challenges on this front and the thorny problems that they can lead to. But she’s hardly the only network news correspondent who tries (and fails) to wear two hats at the same time. We’ve criticized Natalie Azar, MD at NBC as well as her predecessor Nancy Snyderman, MD. Our tag for TV physician-journalists contains at least a dozen other examples of how this situation leads to conflicts of interest and poor-quality health care news.

What’s really needed — and what our publisher, Gary Schwitzer, has repeatedly called for — is someone to give these TV physicians training in what it means to be a journalist.

That doesn’t seem to be happening, so we’ll continue to point out how these arrangements don’t serve the best interests of viewers.

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Comments (6)

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Gary Schwitzer

January 17, 2018 at 3:48 pm

Another bad day for network TV physician-“reporters”, with Ashton’s garbled garbage message coming on the same day that CNN’s Sanjay Gupta diagnosed Trump with heart disease despite the fact that he hasn’t examined him. http://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2018/01/17/trump-heart-disease-health-medical-exam-gupta-newday.cnn

Stephanie Sebring

January 18, 2018 at 5:42 pm

I love the segment on natural healing alternatives. Big pharmacias & the FDA (employees paid by the big pharmacias), are in control. Money speaks, especially when it involves billions of dollars. What a sad thing for our country & it’s people.

    Kevin Lomangino

    January 19, 2018 at 10:30 pm

    Stephanie,

    I agree that there is much wrong with our health care system and money speaks too loudly. But the answer isn’t to embrace approaches that don’t have any solid supporting evidence. That’s just more wasted money and the illusion of an improvement.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Kevin Lomangino
    Managing Editor

William M. London

January 20, 2018 at 2:16 pm

Thanks for this enlightening analysis of health misinfotainment. The segment is similar in style to many infomercials: only the disclaimers offer a service to viewers. Yet despite the disclaimers, Dr. Ashton expressed excitement for the featured products.

I think the Association of Health Care Journalists should reconsider this part of its Statement of Principles: “There are many sides in a health care story. It is not the job of the journalist to take sides, but to present an accurate, balanced and complete report.”

I’m afraid that is the kind of ethical guidance that has led journalists and supposed medical experts to offer false balance in reporting on issues for which one side is strongly supported by evidence and the other side is supported by weak evidence and the passion of cranks, crackpots, false prophets, doomsayers, wishful thinkers, etc. (Here are links to three critiques of false balance in reporting: https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/newborn-chiropractic-false-balance-and-the-doctors/ and https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/stat-news-false-balance-about-stanislaw-burzynski-and-his-disproven-cancer-therapy/ and https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/vaccines-and-the-media-no-room-for-balance/.)

The problem of false balance also involves presenting the views of dubious experts as well as real experts . See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDYba0m6ztE

As HealthNewsReview.org has shown so well, the evidence is murky in many health news stories and there is no justification for advocacy in reporting. But I see nothing wrong with advocacy by journalists for positions that are established well based on evidence and against positions for which evidence is clearly lacking.

Jonathan Jarry

January 22, 2018 at 6:54 am

I’ve exchanged a few tweets with her (https://twitter.com/crackedscience/status/954328270107037696), and her answers were quite predictable. 1) These studies are listed on NCBI, therefore they constitute good evidence; 2) Lots of people use these remedies, therefore we need to talk about them… in a positive light; 3) What about medicine? Many medical studies also have poor methodology; 4) We need to be open-minded. Somebody needs a crash course in science-based medicine and critical thinking.

Susan Haas

February 12, 2018 at 9:10 am

Mr. Lomangino: I enjoyed your piece and agree with you entirely. At first, I thought it said that Jennifer ANISTON had given the advice, but I see now that it may as well have been. I also love one of your respondent’s phrases, “misinfotainment.” It’s a great description for some of the public health messages dispatched by those who are ignorant of what scientific research means. If someone wants to say that chicken soup or oregano “might make you feel better,” that is fine, but they should in no way represent it as treating a virus. Vodka might also make one feel better, right?