Health News Reporting – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media

By Roy Benaroch, M.D., Emory University

Media stories portray health risks both in positive and negative ways. When health news stories paint an accurate picture, it is called good reporting but when stories are exaggerated, it results in bad reporting. As a result, some news stories are reliable while others are misleading. Find out how the same research reported in different ways, can either increase awareness or spread fear among the readers. 

Young woman with pills trying to make a choice based on health news.
It can be difficult to know what the real risks are. (Image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

In order to understand the nuances of health-risks reporting better, three health news articles on the same research study are being analyzed in this article. The study was reported as news articles in The New York Times, CNN, and The Newsweek. Each of them had their own style of reporting the study, which provides a glimpse into the good, bad, and ugly sides of media reporting. 

The study under scrutiny is the one on breast cancer risk associated with the use of hormonal contraceptives, including birth control pills. The research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2017. This study progressed through the skeptic toolkit tests for strength and salience as it followed a large sample size of nearly 1.8 million Danish women who were observed for a period of about 11 years. The database used for the study was designed accurately to capture prescriptions filled for the medicines and diagnoses of breast cancer. The conclusion of the study by the author is quoted as “The risk of breast cancer was higher among women who currently or recently used contemporary hormonal contraceptives than among women who had never used hormonal contraceptive and the risk increased with longer durations of use; however, absolute increases in risk were small.”

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Good Reporting of a Health News Article

Oral Contraceptives of the 1970s (Image: The U.S.
Food and Drug Administration / Public domain

The New York Times headlined their article as “Birth Control Pills Still Linked to Breast Cancer, Study Finds.” The key to good reporting is the accuracy of science facts and the context. The article gave the big picture of the study right in the first sentence stating that women who rely on birth control pills or contraceptive devices that release hormones face a small but significant increase in the risk for breast cancer. It then went on to provide the absolute numbers that for every 100,000 women who used the contraceptives, 13 additional breast cancer cases were reported. This meant that for every 100,000 women, there were 55 cancers every year among non-users whereas there were 68 cancers among the users. Thirteen was a not a large number but it was an absolute number for the women to interpret and make a choice. The article also stated that while birth control pills may contribute to an increased risk of breast cancer, they decrease the risks of other cancers, including ovarian and endometrial cancer.

The New York Times article focused on absolute numbers rather than relative percentages. It painted the real picture of the research study, avoiding unnecessary fearmongering and, hence, can be cited as an example of good reporting of health risks.

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The Bad Story by Mischaracterizing Risk

Five images of breasts showing different possible indicators of breast cancer.
Early Signs of Breast Cancer.
(Image: Morning2k/Public domain)

The same risk was presented in a different way by CNN, which made a quite misleading conclusion. The health news titled “Birth Control is Still Linked to Increased Risk of Breast Cancer” itself set a different tone and went on to say birth control could increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer by 38%. This meant more than a third of women were likely to suffer from cancer due to use of the pills and that figure was huge. The story had used the concept of relative increase instead of absolute increase. The relative increase of about 24% (which was 13 additional cases over 55 overall cases) seems to be a large number but the absolute increase from 55 (0.06%) to 68 (0.07%) over a total sample size of 100,000 was just 0.01%. As if this exaggeration was not enough, CNN chose to highlight the relative increase of 38% in the subgroup of women who were taking the pills for a longer duration . Well, this bad news piece definitely had an eye-catching headline that would create a sense of fear amongst the users of birth control pills.

This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Ugly Interpretation

The same research in Newsweek appeared as “Breast Cancer: Birth Control May Increase Risk by Up to 38%.” Apart from the ‘relative risk’ clickbait in their headline, the Newsweek also rephrased the study to further scare the readers. The health news article said that nearly a quarter of American women were doing something that might increase their risk of developing breast cancer by a third. To mess it up further, the article wandered through some reassuring statistics, the cost of unwanted pregnancies and the heightened risk of suicides. Nonetheless, Newsweek is not a terrible media outlet after all, just that this story was not good journalism. Sometimes, things could get uglier, especially in fake news journalism. One such fake news story that was widely circulated on Facebook in 2018 was highlighted by Newsweek. The take away from the story was that just because a story appears like news, it need not necessarily be true.

Common Questions About Health News Reporting – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Q: How does the media influence our health decisions?

Media stories are one of our main sources of information that influence our perceptions related to health, and assist us in making choices.

Q: What is the objective of health news reporting?

Health news reports are expected to act as a medium to communicate, inform, and educate people on the risks involved in living in our environment. They can also influence the government’s policy-making and communication strategies related to health.

Q: What role does media play in the health of a society?

During times of crises or a pandemic, the media could play a significant role in either increasing or reducing fear among the public. Media should act as a bridge to effectively communicate between health officials and the public, especially during such times.

Q: What are the factors that influence media coverage on health news?

The typical factors that influence media coverage of health news include government, advertisers, interest groups, and competition from other media houses.

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