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evidence based medicine, pregnancy

Fact checking is optional when it comes to health information and the media

I just read an “article” (and I use that term rather loosely) this morning on msnbc.com. It was about how the previous reports of a Mexican woman claiming to be pregnant with 9 babies weren’t entirely true. How untrue? Well, turns out she wasn’t even pregnant.

Yes, you read that correctly. In their haste to report on such a fantastical story, msnbc.com and several other major media outlets forgot a little thing called fact checking. (Just so you know, if a reporter had asked me to comment on the piece before they went to press, I’d have said, “No fucking way. Prove it.”).

So, what about things that are slightly harder to check than GESTATING NINE BABIES? If the media can’t get the simple facts straight about a woman who claims to be a nonomom, how accurate can they be about real health information? Not so good, it turns out. In one study of pediatric health information only 55% of news sites had medically accurate content. And if you’re a frequent reader of this blog, you’ll know I post often about the medical misinformation reported by the media, from G-spots to abortion.

So why do news sites have such a hard time with accurate health content? I suspect it’s a combination of the following:

  • Sloppy reporting. Not fact checking the source, not getting verification from an actual medical expert in the specific area, or using a bad article or a case report as the basis for the article.
  • The desperation for eye grabbing headlines (OMG, nine babies!)
  • Pandering to inaccurate medical hot buttons, like anti-vaccine stories, because it drives traffic (you’ll notice Huffington Post didn’t win the Pulitzer for their *cough* health reporting)
  • Not removing out of date pieces. What what was standard of care in 2003 might now, in the light of new studies, actually be poor advice. Government web sites circumvent this problem as these site are curated by medical librarians, who fact check, cross-reference, and cull out of date information.

Some news media get it right. When I submitted an opinion piece to USA Today, before it was even accepted for publication, not only did I have to provide medical articles to support every fact I discussed, but I had to give the phone number of the doctor I quoted so the fact-checker could call and independently verify. I’ve also had many similar positive experiences with Cosmopolitan and Glamour magazine where I’ve been contacted by a fact checker to not only make sure I’ve been quoted correctly, but to also review the article for accuracy. Although, I’m disheartened to report in one instance when I disagreed with a claim made by a reporter the magazine simply removed my name as a source and ran the article with the false, but attention grabbing information intact instead of making the necessary, but less titillating changes.

Makes me wonder if the worth of an online health reporter to a news agency is not in the accuracy of their content or the societal value of their information, but rather the clicks garnered by salacious headlines.

Caveat lector.

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Discussion

11 thoughts on “Fact checking is optional when it comes to health information and the media

  1. Sadly Jen, I think you’re right about media outlets being willing to sacrifice factual accuracy (however reluctantly) if it gets them ratings, sales or pageviews (depending on the medium). Many of the bigger media outlets are owned by major corporations with diverse holdings and investors to please. And the one thing those investors understand about all the industries they have holdings in is making money – the more money they make in the least amount of time, the better. And since the leaders of these corporations depend on said investors to keep their plush jobs, accuracy is often disregarded in the name of keeping “the street” happy.

    Posted by Joshua Brett | April 28, 2012, 3:54 pm
  2. And don’t you hate when “fact checking” kind of becomes plagiarism:

    http://www.foxnews.com/health/2012/04/26/airplane-quarantine-scare-reminds-us-were-all-at-risk/

    “Part of the virus family which also includes polioviruses and hepatitis A virus that live in the digestive tract.”

    http://kidshealth.org/parent/infections/bacterial_viral/coxsackie.html

    “Coxsackieviruses are part of the enterovirus family of viruses (which also includes polioviruses and hepatitis A virus) that live in the human digestive tract.”

    Maybe polio and hepatitis A live in Dr. Manny’s digestive tract…

    Posted by Vincent Iannelli, MD | April 28, 2012, 4:46 pm
  3. Makes me just a little crazy. I never share an article or results of a study without trying to go find the original source – or at the very least the abstract. I can’t tell you how many times the headline misrepresents the results. And don’t even get me started on how poorly designed a lot of these studies are!

    Posted by Erika Goyer | April 28, 2012, 7:12 pm
  4. I really love the articles on anti-vax sites. They always have a long list of resources they cited at the end of the article, including some peer reviewed journal articles, but if you actually read the articles, it is clear that you are the only one that did. They usually don’t support what the article is saying at all, which I guess can happen when you just read the abstract or simply copy something from another anti-vax article.

    This one cited a journal article that doesn’t even exist:

    http://vactruth.com/2012/04/25/change-names-of-diseases/

    Posted by Vincent Iannelli, MD | April 29, 2012, 6:18 am
  5. This drives me absolutely crazy. My daughter has type 1 diabetes. I often receive the “try cinnamon” and “make a few easy changes” articles in my mailbox (most are from well-meaning people). After Better Homes and Gardens did a particularly upsetting piece on “how to cure diabetes”, I was inundated with copies AND phone calls. After explaining the difference between T1D and T2D to one woman, she said, “Well, people DO cure it; my grandfather did and it’s really too bad you aren’t even willing to try!”
    I constantly have to explain to people that journalists like the woman who wrote that article (and others like her who make oodles of money giving lifestyle and medical advice) is a journalist, not a physician. She might as well be writing fiction!

    Posted by lam | April 29, 2012, 11:42 am
  6. Reblogged this on BookLover62 and commented:
    So very true, we should never believe everything we read. When it comes to medical and health information, you should use reputable medical sources, such as Mayo Clinic, NIH, or the leading health information sites for the disease you are concerned about. For all my research on HIV/AIDS when I was working in Medical Social Work, I always consulted with various respected sites to find the information, I, my clients and even the providers needed. Always, always, make sure you have the most reliable up-to-date sources for your information.

    Posted by BookLover62 | April 29, 2012, 9:34 pm
  7. I am really glad to read these comments. I have been involved in providing health information literacy classes to the general public and members of the medical community attended sometimes as well. I was (and still am amazed and disturbed) about the lack of knowledge about sources of reliable medical information for the public. Hopefully, we will run these classes again later this year. Yay for the medical librarian plug!

    Posted by Catherine Voutier | April 29, 2012, 11:24 pm
  8. What is even worse than the media not fact checking is when the television doctors decide to throw out information, that is incorrect. That infuriates me even more. At least the media you can discuss how their information is inaccurate, but it is a little more difficult when it is someone who supposedly has the credentials that is dispersing faulty information.

    Posted by Melissa Gastorf | April 30, 2012, 3:39 am
  9. “What is even worse than the media not fact checking is when the television doctors decide to throw out information, that is incorrect. That infuriates me even more. ”

    The big problem with the TV docs, is that even when they are trying to do the right thing, they are often talking about things that are well out of their specialty. So you have a neurosurgeon talking about pediatrics or a pediatrician talking about pregnancy, and they aren’t going to get everything right.

    Posted by About Pediatrics | April 30, 2012, 6:41 am
  10. again, I’m late. But do you read science based medicine (blog) or listen to the skeptics guide to the universe (podcast)? so much of what you write here overlaps with their view/posts. this post reminded me of both, because Dr. Steven Novella (who started both) often complains about science reporting. I think you would enjoy both blog and podcast, if oyu listen to podcasts.

    Posted by magra178 | May 11, 2012, 10:40 am

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