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Conflict of interest with Big Tobacco?


4 Star

Conflict of interest with Big Tobacco?

Our Review Summary

This broadcast segment, which reports on new findings that call into question previous positive research about spiral CT scans to detect early stage lung cancer, is an example of how health journalism can self-correct.

While this broadcast segment reports on important reporting done by the New York Times, it has several virtues worth noting:

  • It makes very clear that this same news operation itself previously reported on the research whose conclusions are now in question. Showing clips from its now-tainted reporting is especially admirable.
  • It also mentions that its parent company, GE, makes the scan machines and stands to benefit from positive research. This adds unfavorable light to the network’s previous reporting on the scans. This  is additionally damning of the news division’s previous work.
  • The report uses independent experts to provide context for the findings about the conflict of interest.

The report is not perfect. It should have included information about the price of the scans, which could illustrate how much money is at stake from positive findings (particularly given its parent company’s financial interest). It could have included a consumer takeaway for those at risk of lung cancer who have seen previous reporting on this issue. It could have included a website where viewers could get more information.

Given the limits of an evening news broadcast, however, it’s an admirable piece of television journalism–and a good example of how a news organization can use transparency to benefit its credibility. NBC news producers should consider a more in-depth report on one of its news magazine shows.  

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that if the New York Times had not done this original reporting, NBC would not have been able to set its viewers straight. But in today’s media ecology, one excellent report does get circulated widely. That NBC did so quickly and was transparent about its role in perpetuating misinformation previously demonstrates good journalistic ethics.

The hope is that the embarrassing incident will lead NBC–and all journalists who have reported uncritically these findings–to do more digging before they report postive research results.

Will other media organizations look at their clip files and examine their previous reporting on spiral CT scans?  



Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Because the story implies that the treatment is widely used despite no proof of benefit, the cost of the scans should have been reported.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The story discussed harms and it should have discussed more about potential benefits – quantifying them to let viewers judge the evidence.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?


The story accurately reports that many people may have been subjected to radiation and surgery despite lack of evidence about safety and efficacy of the scans.

While it might have been useful to specify what harms may come from high-dose radiation and lung removal surgery, the implications of serious potential harms are sufficiently obvious. 

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Applicable

Because the story is about a conflict of interest calling reported evidence into question, this criterion is not applicable.

Having said that, there have been additional studies published since Henschke’s that suggest that her study was overstating the benefit of the scans. A little extra research and reporting could have provided greater context and evidence for conflict of interest. 


Does the story commit disease-mongering?


The story does not overstate the severity or frequency of the underlying disease, lung cancer, or the spiral CT scans themselves. 

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


The broadcast segment is based on ambitious and credible reporting in the New York Times. The segment also includes comments from two independent, knowledgable sources in the field.

Further, the segment uses clips from the network’s own prevoius reporting to make clear its complicity in broadcasting misinformation about the research.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

Given the segment’s conclusion–that the crediblity of previously reported research into the spiral CT scans is now in question–it would have been useful at the end to direct people either to more information or to speak with a physican if they are considering a spiral CT scan.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


Because the story does not invite people to make a choice about whether to get a spiral CT scan, it’s not necesary to include availablity information. 

The implication that the treatment is widely available to the public and being researched is accurate, however.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Applicable

The nature of the news, about a conflict of interest regarding research into a widely treatment, makes this criterion not applicable.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


This report discloses that it is based on an article appearing in the New York Times.

The broadcast properly gives little prominence to the involved medical school or the tobacco company’s statement to the press.

Total Score: 5 of 8 Satisfactory


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