Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Is the financial meltdown of the media becoming a public health threat?

At a conference I attended yesterday in Boston on Reinventing Journalism, the talk was all about how online social media tools are introducing new models of sharing information and helping journalists do their jobs better. The panelists made scant reference to the financial meltdown of the mainstream press and only one speaker mentioned in passing his concern that this crisis is impairing the ability of journalists to dig up important facts and connect the dots -- i.e. do the kind of investigative reporting that newspapers used to be known for.

Yet the evidence that this is happening is all around us and its impact is particularly glaring to me (as a longtime medical news junkie) in health coverage. As once-respected newspapers like The Boston Globe close their health and science sections and fewer papers report the reality behind the news coming out of medical journals and conferences, what we have left are television talk shows and wire services giving us a shallow and unskeptical view of new drugs and technologies.

On his HealthnewsReview blog yesterday, Gary Schwitzer makes a convincing argument that the palaver provided by the network television morning shows is actually a public health threat. Their health segments, he argues, "unquestioningly promote new drugs and new technologies" and give viewers false expectations about new treatments that may actually do more harm than good. As just one example, Schwitzer points to ABC Good Morning America's recent segment on an experimental obesity drug that it presented as a silver bullet for people wanting to drop a few pounds, without examining the possible side effects or conflicts of interest among the drug's researchers.

Another case in point: this AP story on a newly published study in the Archives of General Psychiatry announcing the existence of chronic depression in preschoolers. The AP story quotes experts saying that children as young as 3 have a chemical imbalance that predisposes them to chronic depression, the inference being that they need to be treated with potent antidepressants. And indeed, the AP story ends by noting that a "rising numbers of preschoolers are taking psychiatric drugs, including Prozac, which is used to treat depression."

As Philip Dawdy at Furious Seasons, notes with a wee bit of sarcasm: "AP just swallows the chemical imbalance theory of depression wholesale. That's some nice skeptical journalism there."


Michael Kirsch, M.D. said...

Of course, you are correct, but the point is hardly limited to the medical world. It is not just the vanishing of true journalism and hard copy newspapers, but the continued waning interest of the public in the news. I am one of the remaining anachronisms who spend several hours each week in one newspaper or another. Many other now rely upon Twitter as a news source. Complex and controversial medical issues cannot be fairly presented in a headline or in a brief television news report, particularly when the headline is loaded. Unfortunately, I believe that today's 'journalists' don't have the depth of knowledge or the commitment of their predecessors. Do they understand the news or just read it?

Marya Zilberberg said...

All too true! What is the answer? Bloggers can certainly inject skepticism into the discourse, but it is difficult to separate signal from noise in the blogosphere. Also, most bloggers do not have the time or the resources to do investigative journalism justice.

What is even more alarming is that the medical community tends to swallow these unfiltered messages hook, line and sinker. This is the origin of the overuse and misuse of healthcare and the attendant escalating costs and untold harm.

Michael Kirsch, M.D. said...

The above commenter is correct that I am not an investigative journalist. Nevertheless, as a practicing physician at Ground Zero of health care, I hopefully have some perspective to offer. Indeed, much of what I read about health care reform is about costs and access, almost nothing about medical quality. I believe that physicians know more about the latter than most other stakeholders.