I’ve been critical of “fake news” in mainstream health reporting for a long time. These news stories often contain “spin” and reflect biased reporting of scientific findings.
Often—they exaggerate the benefits of prescription drugs and medical procedures, but downplay the benefits of simple, inexpensive, and natural approaches.
So, I was pleased to see that a group of scientists recently tackled this growing problem. In fact, they investigated how this “spin” skews doctors’ and patients’ understanding of each topic.
I’ll tell you all about that first-of-its-kind study in a moment. But first, let’s back up to talk about how we got to this point…
The problem with secondary sources
When you were in grade school, you may have learned about the difference between primary and secondary sources used by historians (and scientists).
A primary source includes actual original data and evidence from the historical era—such as diaries, speeches, and photographs.
Secondary sources, on the other hand, are one or more steps removed from the original historical event. They include things like textbooks or news articles that interpret the original evidence.
Well, we can use this same classification system in science…
A primary source is the actual scientific study that gets published, with complete data and results, in a journal such as The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). A secondary source is a reporter’s interpretation of the actual results of that NEJM study in, say, Time magazine.
Now, there are two problems here.
First, most individuals—including doctors—never read the primary sources! In fact, according to a 2001 survey by the American Medical Association, only 9 percent of practicing doctors actually read scientific articles. Which means they rely on the mainstream reporters to get it “right.”
Which brings me to the second problem…
More and more news stories don’t get it right.
Sometimes, the bad reporting stems from pure ignorance, as reporters aren’t always experts on a topic and, therefore, don’t understand the real science. Other times, the reporters are clearly pushing an agenda, so the article contains “spin.”
That’s why I always go to the original data sources—the scientific studies themselves—to get the information that I report to you. And at the bottom of each of my Daily Dispatches and Insiders’ Cures newsletters, you’ll find the original sources listed. So, you can always look them up yourself—or share them with your doctor. (Chances are, they haven’t seen the original study or data.)
Sometimes, these two problems snowball into an even larger issue—something called “fake news”—which I see in the mainstream press. Often, it’s an article bashing a dietary supplement. These articles raise false alarms and steer people away from the safe and effective natural approaches that really do work to prevent and reverse chronic diseases. But when I dig into the actual study data, I usually find there’s nothing to be concerned about!
Thankfully, researchers with the University of Minnesota used science to shed some light on the problem…
Study evaluates “spin” on readers
According to the researchers, this new study was the first-ever randomized controlled clinical trial (RTC) to examine the effect of “spin” on doctors and patients.
The researchers defined spin as:
- The misrepresentation of study results—whether deliberate or not. (Remember, many so-called “medical writers” don’t understand their topic.)
- An overemphasis of drug benefits, as compared to what the results actually demonstrated.
- An exaggeration of drug safety, as compared to what the results actually demonstrated.
Overall, when selecting the news stories, the researchers found that 100 percent of the headlines contained spin. And 100 percent of the articles exhibited “misleading” reporting.
So—they corrected half the articles by removing the spin and more accurately reporting the study’s findings without interpretation. And they left the other half of the articles alone.
Then, they asked 900 randomly selected doctors and patients to each read 10 news stories. And here’s what they found:
- More than 50 percent admitted to relying on news stories to make decisions about their health.
- Nearly 40 percent said they preferred online health news as their primary source about new treatments.
After reading the pieces, the doctors and patients were asked about the probability that a specific drug treatment would be beneficial for patients. And they responded on a 10-point scale from likely to unlikely.
For all types of drug studies, when the article contained spin, both doctors and patients were consistently almost 50 percent more likely to believe a treatment would be beneficial and safe.
So, clearly, the “spin” works, which is why the crony, corporatist, mainstream press keeps doing it.
The dangers of spin
In their report, the authors also referenced a previous study that found nearly 90 percent of stories about medical studies on Google Health had at least some type of spin—such as misleading reporting or interpretation, omitting adverse events, suggesting animal study results apply to humans, or claiming causation in studies that only reported associations.
A similar, prior study found that mainstream reports on cancer screenings often exaggerate their benefits and ignore their dangers—strongly influencing doctors’ attitudes and recommendations. (Of course, the real data shows that routine, “recommended” screenings for most types of cancer are useless and often dangerous.)
Clearly, as this first-of-its-kind study shows, spin does make a difference. That’s why I’ll continue to expose it whenever I see it here in my Daily Dispatch and in my Insiders’ Cures monthly newsletter. Because I always want you to get the real answers you need to make informed decisions. If you’re not yet a subscriber to my monthly newsletter, now’s the perfect time to get started!
“Three randomized controlled trials evaluating the impact of “spin” in health news stories reporting studies of pharmacologic treatments on patients’/caregivers’ interpretation of treatment benefit.” BMC Medicine, 2019. 17:147. doi.org/10.1186/s12916-019-1330-9
“Interpretation of Results of Studies Evaluating an Intervention Highlighted in Google Health News: A Cross-Sectional Study of News.” PLoS ONE; 10(10): e0140889.