Sunday, January 29, 2006

Rx for bad medical reporting

My fabulous colleague Alan Cassels (co-author of Selling Sickness: How the World's Biggest Pharmaceutical Companies are Turning us all into Patients and the “star” of my documentary Little Boy Blue) and I recently launched a website: MediaDoctor.ca (with the support of the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society and funding from Industry Canada).

Media Doctor is a website dedicated to improving the accuracy of media reports about new medical treatments, based on the Australian Media Doctor project that launched a year earlier than ours.

Our Media Doctor team reviews current news items about medical treatments, assesses their quality using a standardised rating scale and presents reviews of good and bad examples of reports on this website. We anticipate that these independent and objective critiques will improve journalistic practices in reporting new medications and treatments in Canada.

Feedback from some of the health editors and journalists we’ve spoken to is affirming that this kind star-rating will have an impact on how reporters approach their stories, how much effort they put into reading beyond industry-issued press releases, and how much they hype new drugs. One reporter was comical in his response to my “heads-up, we’re rating your work” phone call, moaning, “No, no, no, no, no you can’t give my stories a star rating. That’s not fair.”

Well, given that the vast majority of health consumers, otherwise known as patients, otherwise known as the public, get our knowledge about health and medical matters from the media, not from health-care providers, I believe applying a star rating to those stories is perfectly fair.

For instance, imagine you’re a woman who comes from a family that has a history of breast cancer. You read the article at CTV.ca that suggests that drinking 6 cups of coffee a day may lower some breast cancer risks. Sounds good. Easy enough to make the extra trips to Starbucks every day…so you double your latte intake based on the hope presented in this article. Maybe it’s a good idea, maybe not. Find out what the Media Doctor reviewers had to say about this 2 star article.

Be sure to check out some of the other articles our team has reviewed. Post a comment. And sign up to receive a notice each time we post a new review.

(And to my American readers, watch for your very own stars and stripes Media Doctor website, coming in February, 2006).

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