News media have a duty in health journalism

In 2009 writing for The Guardian, Ben Goldacre marked the new year by saying “nothing has changed, people continue to have stupid ideas, newspapers continue to laud them, and lives will be lost.”

Back in 2013, PlosOne published a study on the effects of media on the AIDS crisis. What they found was that

I am going to quote the abstract on this:

Education and wealth are strongly and positively associated with awareness of HIV/AIDS and knowledge about transmission and prevention of HIV/AIDS and are significantly associated with condom use. These associations are attenuated when the use of various types of mass media is added to the models, with newspapers showing the strongest effect. The findings of this study suggest that media use has the potential to blunt the impact of socioeconomic status though not completely eliminate it.

Which is to say that newspapers can save lives when they engage in good health reporting, such as when the news media went after Thabo Mbeki for his AIDS denialism and the toll that took on South African lives.

The thing is the power to do good is also the power to do harm.

Yesterday the Times LIVE ran an article all about Actress Michelle Mosalakae urging her followers to opt for “natural remedies” and self healing, rather than Western Medicine.

“There’s a reason God has gifted us with dark leafy greens and many other vegetables and fruits. Our bodies are dynamic and organic and always adapting and changing, allow your body to operate optimally by fuelling it correctly. Love yourself enough to eat clean and be active,” she advised.

Mosalakae is an actress, not a doctor, not a medical scientist. Her claims pass the muster of that great scientific journal Twitter, and nowhere else.

The report on this doesn’t even approach an actual expert because who needs the expertise of those “Western Scientists” who use nonsense things like “evidence” to back their claims when you have a third rate celebrity?

But I shouldn’t just slam South African media pushing the same line they condemned Manto Tshabalala-Msimang for about a decade ago, this happens all over the world.

At the start of this century Measles was declared eradicated in the United States. In February Medical Xpress reported that thanks to the anti-vaccine movement, spearheaded by an actor famous for talking out of his anus and a softcore pornstar, they’ve had “50 to several hundred cases per year” since then.

And all of this is spurred on by a media that is willing to trade its readers’ lives for clicks.

Of course there is also the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper so up to date on its scientific knowledge that it thinks demons are real. You know, never mind the fact that none of the claims made in that article made it past peer review, or the fact that this sort of superstition regularly kills people, run the story anyway because what matters is the clicks.

There is a duty of care in news reporting, to be sceptical of sources, to not just parrot what someone says but to actually examine it and figure out whether it is true or not, whether it passes muster.

News Media to some extent serves a gatekeeper role when it comes to informing the public. Not every claim is worthy of column space, and there is a need to winnow out the garbage, and that has not been taken seriously for far too long.

This kind of reporting is not acceptable and never should be, it is a basic betrayal of a journalist’s role in society.


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