New research on the reporting of medical treatments in the Australian media showed slight improvements in accuracy but the overall quality of health reporting remained poor, says a study of more than 1,200 health news stories published by Australian media outlets.   It found that over the past four years there was only small improvement in quality of coverage of the availability of new treatments, the potential harm of interventions and accurate analysis of any benefits.

The report evaluated medical news stories against 10 criteria including: how well the story covered the benefits, harms and costs of a new treatment; whether the journalist consulted an impartial expert in the field; and whether the article relied heavily on a media release (bold ours), particularly if it came from a commercial source.

NOTE/ Ironically, we received this from them as a pre-written media release.  Somehow they feel that if a media release is written by a commercial entity it is somehow more suspect than if it is written by a commercial entity that monitors commercial media releases written about research done by a grad student, or written by a grad student, or by the media department of a university; about a survey done by a grad student and published in PLoS.    And we love PLoS but, let's be honest, the quality in PLoS One can be pretty inconsistent. 

Anyway, just in case it is unclear, everything with 'news releases' in the URL was rewritten from a news release and in many cases just put here with minor edits.    Our audience are not educated by news releases, they just want to know what is happening before everyone else.    You should be just as skeptical of news releases written by educational sources as you are corporate ones, despite the elitism you sometimes see in academia./NOTE

University of Newcastle PhD student Amanda Wilson from the School of Medicine and Public Health said the most striking finding was the very poor coverage of health news by commercial current affairs programs.

"Sensational coverage of unproven and improbable treatments for health issues like cellulite is regularly featured on these networks," Ms Wilson said. "But it is more serious when they start to promote unlikely remedies for more major health problems like cancer or behavioural problems in children."

The biggest improvement in accurate media coverage of medical stories was in online news services, with a five per cent increase in scores over four years. 

"The media plays a very important role in communicating health breakthroughs and influencing public health behaviours," Ms Wilson said. 

"While journalists generally aim to provide accurate, unbiased and complete information, they are inundated with sometimes conflicting information from companies, researchers, the government and consumers.

"It is therefore vital that researchers provide balanced and accurate information to journalists and journal editors on published studies that is designed to inform the public."

The report used news stories evaluated by the media monitoring website   Media Doctor is supported by the Newcastle Institute of Public Health and HMRI. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.

Citation: Wilson A, Bonevski B, Jones A, Henry D (2009) Media Reporting of Health Interventions: Signs of Improvement, but Major Problems Persist. PLoS ONE 4(3): e4831. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004831