Shooting the messenger

A King's Fund report one-sidedly blames media bias for health panics.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

The reporting of health stories in the media gives disproportionate attention to problems that are not a significant threat to our health, while giving too little attention to major health risks.

That is one of the conclusions of a new report produced by the UK King’s Fund, entitled Health in the News: Risk, Reporting and Media Influence (1). But when the authors look into the causes of this problem and suggest potential solutions, their conclusions are every bit as bad as the problem of which they complain.

The authors talked to a number of leading figures in medicine and government. The consensus was that media coverage of health issues was often ill-informed, and tended to concentrate on crises and err on the side of sensationalism. Dr Philip Harrison of the Medical Research Council (MRC) complained that ‘journalists don’t ask: “What is the truth?”, they ask: “What is the story – how can we make this excite or disturb someone?”’.

Figures from the media responded, explaining that news was whatever seemed most significant and interesting on any particular day. The report also seemed to draw a distinction between daily news items and feature items, with feature items seen as better reflecting the most important health problems.

It is true that the media do have a disproportionate influence in society today. Other influences over people’s judgements and opinions, such as local communities and political associations, have lost much of their sway in recent years. But it is one-sided to solely blame the media, either for the way in which health issues are reported or for the consequences of that reporting.

Why is it that there is so much interest in health stories today? As Frank Furedi notes elsewhere on spiked, there is a general sense that we are ‘at risk’; indeed, vulnerability is our defining condition (see Epidemic of fear, by Frank Furedi). Perversely, as our lives have become more comfortable, our food better and more plentiful, and infectious diseases rarer, so we seem to obsess more over our health.

In that respect, the additional coverage given to health stories is really meeting a demand from society for more information and discussion about these issues.

The media often only parrots what is spoon-fed to it by government, health agencies and interest groups. As this article is being written, BBC News bears headlines including ‘Cancer alert over pasta sauces’, ‘Big portions health warning’ and ‘Too much liquorice can damage men’s sex lives’. The first story is from the government’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), the second from a cancer charity and the third from a pharmaceutical conference.

It was Britain’s previous Conservative government that rubber-stamped the link between BSE and vCJD, and promptly introduced a completely unnecessary ban on beef-on-the-bone. It was the current government that responded to MMR-vaccine fears by raising fears about a measles epidemic. It was the chief medical officer who devoted a quarter of his annual report to West Nile Virus, an infectious disease unknown in the UK. The list goes on.

The media didn’t make these stories up – they came from just the kinds of sources who have also complained about media balance. As such, it is hard to take the complaints made in the King’s Fund report seriously. For example, former health minister Hazel Blears told the authors: ‘Media scares can be so damaging to public health.’ So why does the government and its agencies create and encourage such scares?

The report shows that the public often thinks that when a news item reports both sides of an argument, this means that opinion within the medical profession is split. For example, while most reports about MMR will have a medical expert arguing in favour of the vaccine, there is almost always someone speaking against it, too. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of the medical profession think the vaccine is safe.

But what about the uncritical way in which much government advice is presented? For example, we are told to cut down on fat and salt and eat five pieces of fresh fruit and vegetables every day. However, there are plenty of researchers who will point out that these lifestyle changes will do little to improve health and may, in some instances, make things worse.

What the report’s authors seem to want are health stories that have the ‘right’ message. So rather than be told about SARS, vCJD or another National Health Service (NHS) crisis, they would rather we were told to stop smoking, eat less and exercise more. Yet far from being ‘proven’ risks, as they would like to suggest, much of this ‘healthy lifestyle’ advice is of dubious benefit.

Far better to just have less health reporting full-stop. But this is not simply in the hands of the media. Instead, it would require a complete change of attitude by government and health groups – because when it comes to health reporting, the media are certainly not the only ones with a desire to ‘excite or disturb’.

Read on:

Unhealthy obsessions, by Mick Hume

A viral hurricane?, by Rob Lyons

(1) Health in the News (summary), King’s Fund [.pdf 132KB]

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Topics Politics


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