By Elizabeth Jensen
Special to TelevisionWeek
A study in the March issue of the American Journal of Managed Care, released last week, claims to be the most comprehensive survey yet of local TV health news, which is by far the top source of medical news for Americans. Its findings are probably not what stations want to hear.
The conclusion: Local newscasts are a font of medical stories and health information, but the reports are brief, often lack necessary perspective, don’t do as much as they could to help viewers prevent health problems and occasionally contain “egregious errors” with potentially serious consequences. One report misunderstood a lab study on contraceptives and suggested that lemon juice could one day replace expensive HIV medications. Two stories suggested exercise could cause cancer.
“To summarize: There’s a lot of health reporting on local television news, most of it is not very useful and some of it may be harmful,” said lead author Dr. James Pribble, a lecturer in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School.
He said he hopes the study will give reporters “a glimpse of what is being reported throughout the country” and perhaps spur them to educate themselves further, while inspiring health professionals to “look in the mirror and say, ‘We need to take responsibility for some of this.'” Too often, he said, the medical establishment deluges journalists with press releases instead of deciding itself what is most important for the public to know.
“The story is missed opportunity” by the most powerful communication force, said study co-author Ken Goldstein, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the director of its NewsLab. “I don’t think it is killing people, but I think it could do more to save people,” he said.
The University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin researchers tapped into thousands of hours of local news broadcasts from around the country that were recorded and logged by NewsLab and originally used to study election coverage.
The scope of broadcasts studied was vast: 1,799 stories on 2,795 half-hour late local broadcasts taken from 122 stations in the top 50 media markets. Demonstrating how popular health and medical stories have become, 40 percent of the newscasts studied had at least one such story. Overall, the stories accounted for 11 percent of the nonsports, nonweather portion of the newscasts, which were recorded in October 2002.
Report Quality Faulted
But the researchers were not impressed with the quality of the reports. According to their data, the median story length was just 33 seconds, and most stories did not provide details about where the information came from. Just 27 percent included an interview with a health professional.
The two most widely covered specific topics in the survey period were breast cancer-October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month-and West Nile virus, which was then experiencing a nationwide outbreak.
The West Nile story, in particular, was problematic for the researchers. Local newscasts “cover the things that are the sexy, high-profile, scary diseases,” said Mr. Goldstein. “They are not covering the things that are generally likely to kill Americans. Maybe the diabetes story is not exciting, even though the disease kills more people than West Nile virus.”
While mosquito-transmitted West Nile “was news and should have been reported to the public,” the researchers wrote, most of the stories lacked perspective that would have helped the public understand the relatively rare risk and reduced viewer fears. Moreover, they found, only 18 percent of the West Nile stories gave recommendations about how to prevent mosquito bites or what to do if bitten.
Complicating local health reporting, Mr. Goldstein said, is the lack of established monitoring for mistakes, in the way that political reporting is quickly held accountable to accuracy. “There’s not the same check when it comes to health stories,” he said.
In their conclusions, the researchers put some responsibility for improving coverage on the medical establishment. “Doctors should do a better job of promoting their findings,” Mr. Goldstein said, both visually and in the brief time that stations have.
Dr. Pribble said he is well aware of and sympathetic to the constraints put on journalists. “I’m not thinking we’re going to move mountains here,” he said, “but at least if we can get the information out there we can start some kind of dialogue.”
The researchers are looking for funding so they can examine how viewers use TV health news-whether it drives them to the Web to get more information or into their doctor’s office in a panic. “We know the media is not as good at persuading people what to think, but it is pretty good at telling you what to think about,” Mr. Goldstein said, noting that it can be a positive if TV news spurs viewers to do homework about issues such as breast cancer or diabetes.
Dr. Pribble would like to see a study gauging viewer interest in obtaining detailed health information from television. If such interest were to be documented, he said, it could be persuasive in changing reporting.
In the meantime the research team is studying local news health coverage in 2004, as well as how local Spanish-language stations handle the topic.