TV News May Be Bad For Your Health

by DavalosMcCormack on June 15, 2009

Here’s a scary thought. Local TV news is the number one source of news about health and medical issues for most Americans. Think about that. Do you really want to make decisions on how to live your life based on information from the people who brought you the “Jerry Springer Show” and “Are You Hot” (haven’t seen that one! all you need to know is two words, Lorenzo Lamas).

OK, so maybe they aren’t exactly brought to you by the same people, but the impulses that drive shlocky TV shows are also quite evident in TV news, which means you need to take what they say with the proverbial grain of salt (no more than a grain, however, as too much salt is bad for your blood pressure).Think I’m exaggerating? Well, the first ever national study of local TV news health coverage finds plenty to be worried about.The study, by researchers at the University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that the average length of a TV health story was 33 seconds. Try talking for 33 seconds and see if you can get enough information in that time to make any kind of educated decision about health.

Equally worrying, was that some of those short stories made big mistakes. For instance four stations aired reports that suggested lemon juice could act as a contraceptive or help prevent sexual transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. One station even said the study showed that lemon juice could be a substitute for HIV medications. In reality, the study was done in a test tube, not on people, and only showed that lemon juice might be able to “inactivate” sperm. The key words here are test tube, and might. There was no mention in the TV reports of any of those.

TV reports also tend to focus disproportionately on some well known diseases. The researchers found that in the one-month period of their study, TV stations carried ten times more studies on breast cancer than on lung cancer, despite the fact that lung cancer is the biggest cancer killer of American women (and men for that matter).

Half of all the stories about infectious diseases concerned West Nile Virus. But while they talked about local outbreaks they usually failed to give much perspective on them. For instance 82 percent of West Nile Virus stories did not give viewers any information on how to prevent mosquito bites that transmit the virus, or what to do if they were bitten. Nor did the reports mention that even if bitten the danger of contracting the virus is less than 1 percent.

Other reports suggested that exercise might cause cancer (in fact most studies show it reduces the risk) and that duct tape can cure warts.

We are not suggesting you ignore TV health coverage altogether. There are some excellent reporters doing great work. But there are a lot more people writing health stories who neither know, nor care anything about the subject.

New Rule!—Let’s think of Title! Prudence and ?
So, a basic rule of thumb is that if the story is too short to inform but long enough to scare, ignore it. If it’s really important you will be hearing a lot more about it later long after the TV station has moved on to new, scarier things.

To see the full study on what is on local TV health news click here.

For another perspective on some troublesome trends in TV health news click here:

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