Blue M&M's may cure paralysis! That’s just one claim made recently in a health segment on network TV. For more than three years, HealthNewsReview.org editor Gary Schwitzer has been methodically reviewing TV health news claims for accuracy and responsibility. But no more; he’s found the vast majority of TV consumer health reports sickening.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out -- probably not writing her book -- this week. I'm Bob Garfield. Network morning chat shows are seldom regarded as a matter of life and death but, man, do they love the subject. Good Morning America, Today and The Early Show are perpetually digging into the latest health and medical breakthroughs, from heart disease to spinal paralysis to cancer to the old reliable, weight loss miracle. Those stories overflow with optimism and excitement, offering hope for millions. What they don't overflow with is accuracy, context and journalistic responsibility, or so concludes University of Minnesota’s Gary Schwitzer, publisher of HealthNewsReview.org. In September, Schwitzer announced that his team will no longer be reviewing every single medical item on TV. The reason? Despite HealthNewsReview’s years of reporting on the reporting and publishing the results, TV health pieces consistently failed to adhere to basic standards.
GARY SCHWITZER: We, every day, apply 10 set criteria to the review of every story, and how you do on those 10 criteria is translated into a star score, like a movie review rating, of zero to five stars. And after three-and-a-half years and 220-some stories, television news had an average star score of only two stars out of five.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so let's get to some specifics. I'm going to play you a little clip here from an ABC Good Morning America piece about a breakthrough obesity drug. This is from late July.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: A new weight loss drug that works by cutting cravings for food may be available by early next year. In three late-stage clinical trials, the drug helped participants reduce their weights, size and improve good cholesterol. So is this the silver bullet we've all been waiting for? To find out, we turn to ABC News medical editor Dr. Tim Johnson.
BOB GARFIELD: The answer to the question, is it a silver bullet, I'm sure is no, but what does this report, which you rated as two out of five stars, what is it leaving out?
GARY SCHWITZER: So often, and this is a consistent theme in looking at these television news stories, we don't hear about how large the potential harms might be. And here you’re talking about a combination drug that’s an antidepressant and an anti-alcoholism or drug addiction drug, and we're looking at as a silver bullet for people who need to lose a few pounds? You know, that’s what we call disease-mongering, which is one of our criteria. Are we now going to treat you and I, who need to drop a few pounds, as a disease, as a condition that must be treated? Why can't we begin to have a discussion about how much we're spending on this kind of approach to health care? Is it necessary? What’s the quality of the evidence? That’s what I'm not hearing.
BOB GARFIELD: Not to pick on ABC, unnecessarily, let's listen to an NBC Today show segment from February. This one, five-and-a-half minutes on losing weight while you sleep, sounds fantastic.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MEREDITH VIERA: This morning on Take It Off Today, the sleep diet. An estimated 63 percent of Americans do not get enough sleep each night. That is roughly the same number of adults who are overweight or obese. So can getting more Z’s actually make you slimmer? Glamour magazine recently put seven women to the test. Good morning to all of you.
ALL: Good morning.
MEREDITH VIERA: Cindi, tell me how this diet works.
CINDI LEIVE: Well, we kept hearing from researchers that there’s a link between sleep and weight gain, and they kept saying to us anecdotally, listen, if women just got enough sleep, which, as you say, most of us do not, they would probably naturally, without even having to try, weigh less.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that’s what zero stars sounds like. There is no part of this that has anything to do with science [LAUGHS], is there?
GARY SCHWITZER: No, there isn't, and there rarely is. As we wrote, it’s bold, baseless projections. Based on, on what was seen in these seven women, the statement was made that you could probably add about seven years to your life losing weight while you sleep. I'm sorry, I can't have an uplifting tone to my voice. That - it’s just sad, and, and this is, I think, insulting to women viewers. And here is your chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman on the air in effect, endorsing this. It’s like a carnival sideshow.
BOB GARFIELD: [SIGHS] It is not limited to weight loss, however. There is an ongoing fixation with spinal cord injuries and in cures for paralysis. There was a CBS Early Show segment in July on blue food dye.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
HARRY SMITH: In this morning’s Health Watch, blue dye and spinal cord injuries. Research from the University of Rochester suggests the blue dye, such as the stuff that’s used in M&Ms, may – could help, perhaps, prevent paralysis.
BOB GARFIELD: This turns out to be a vast extrapolation of a study done on rats. And apart from everything else, I guess this could cause a run on Gatorade and M&Ms for people wishing to take the sweet, delicious path to non-paraplegia.
GARY SCHWITZER: Well, especially when the set was dressed with those products. The mention that this was in rats was not made until two minutes deep in a three-minute segment. That is unforgivable. And, and I have to tell you, Bob, I'm always the third reviewer out of three every day who looks at these stories. Sometimes I have to rein in the other reviewers who go bananas. And this was one of those days when one of our reviewers said that this was actually starting to feel malicious.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about this kind of [LAUGHS] breathless reporting about supposed medical breakthroughs, and I'm talking about actual harm to actual people. Do you have any evidence that people are actually acting on this dreck and, and making life decisions on the basis of their TV morning news, and if so, how serious a problem is that?
GARY SCHWITZER: Well, not in work that I've done, but in the academic literature there are reports that show very clearly the impact of health news coverage, both good and bad, on consumers of that information. Just picture, if you've known someone in your life with a spinal cord injury and it appears hopeless, and you hear on a network that you presumably have respect for about something that reduces injuries, you’re going to gravitate towards that and you may miss the fact that this was in rats. That, to me, is a harm. That is jerking sick people and their loved ones around with information that doesn't have to be presented that way. It’s fine to cover this story. It’s fine to try to educate the American public about basic research. But you better do it leading with the fact that, folks, before you get too excited, this was in mice. Some people we've talked with still think it’s promising, but it has not been done in people, yet.
BOB GARFIELD: Gary, what are the stakes here?
GARY SCHWITZER: In this era, where we're trying to have a meaningful discussion of health care reform, think about that patient, that voter who’s hearing every day on television news about breakthroughs, miracles and cures, and now, suddenly, perhaps a government-funded research project may announce, you know, there’s no evidence for idea A, B or C. What you've done is set up the public to use that R word of “rationing.” You can't take that miracle, that breakthrough, that cure away from us. We heard about it on Good Morning America, on The Today Show. Had we framed this in a story of evidence, we never would have set up these unrealistic expectations that feed the worried well and that, in my estimation, make the whole discussion of health care reform in this country almost impossible.
BOB GARFIELD: Finally, what you have described for me is a disgrace.
GARY SCHWITZER: I believe it is. I believe that we have given over the airwaves to these companies that are abusing that privilege and misinforming the public, inaccurately, in an imbalanced way and incompletely. Yeah, that’s, I think, how you’d define a disgrace.
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you, Gary.
GARY SCHWITZER: You’re welcome, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: University of Minnesota’s Gary Schwitzer is publisher of HeathNewsReview.org.