Watched the nightly local newscast much in the past few years? Perhaps you’ve heard that lemon juice can be used as a substitute for HIV medications, or that exercise can actually cause cancer. If your child has something caught in his throat, doctors recommend that you shove your fingers down their gullet to get it out. Oh, and be very sure not to perform self-examinations for breast cancer—unless you want to, in which case, doctors say: Go right ahead.
According to a study in the March issue of the American Journal of Managed Care, these often flat-out wrong and occasionally harmful stories were all broadcast under the guise of scientific fact on local television news programs
James Pribble, a lecturer at the University of Michigan Medical School, and lead author of the study, says that the influence of local news in America makes these errors and overstatements cause for significant concern. On these news shows, according to Pribble, inserting vague qualifiers like “scientists say” or “studies show” often substituted for thorough, fact-based reporting.
“Local television news is the number one source of people’s information, almost by a two to one margin,” Pribble said.
Pribble’s conclusions came from a random sampling of 122 stations from the top 200 local news stations in major American media markets. Kenneth Goldstein, a political scientist from the University of Wisconsin, had compiled the recorded broadcasts to study political advertising during the midterm elections in the fall of 2002. When he heard of Pribble’s plans to study coverage of health news, Goldstein offered up his broadcasts and became a co-author of the paper.
Doctors, as well as trained researchers, watched every single health story to assess their medical credibility, finding some seriously frightening broadcasts.
“The biggest, most glaring representative of that was a story about lemon juice’s use as contraceptive,” said Pribble, explaining that the original source for the story was an experiment in which the acidity of lemon juice killed a set of sperm cells in a Petri dish. The experimenters called for further research, but did not state anything conclusive about the properties of lemon juice.
“Local television news jumped on that and stated that as almost factual, saying it could be used to prevent HIV through sexual transmission,” Pribble said. “One station got the entire story wrong and actually reported that lemon juice could be used in lieu of your costly HIV medications.”
These false assertions were presented—in a vast majority of cases—without context, references or tips for finding more information, according to Pribble.
The study concluded that broadcasts also prioritized sensationalist public health stories, like the incidence of Ebola or West Nile Virus in southern states, over the coverage of more commonplace but more serious health risks like diabetes.
Despite the lethal potential of some of their mistakes, Goldstein was sympathetic towards local news reporters, claiming that health professionals carry some responsibility as well for accuracy in health reporting.
“It’s easy to focus on and criticize local news, but I think most of these reporters and most of these producers at local televisions are trying to do a good job,” he said.
Pribble and Goldstein’s study suggested two remedies for fixing misinformation in future broadcasts.
“One, there needs to be more continuous monitoring of what’s said about health on local news,” Goldstein said. “And two, I think doctors and health professionals and people who do political communication could work closer with local television news—do training sessions and that sort of thing—just to help them do a better job.”
Originally published March 14, 2006