Sunday, September 9, 2012

On alcohol and loyalties in medical journalism

This semester, I’m taking courses on medical journalism and media ethics simultaneously. One of the things we’ve discussed as an ethical challenge in my medical journalism class is the difficulty of a health journalist to choose what to cover: there are hundreds of studies going on at the same time, hundreds of articles being published in dozens of reputable journals, hundreds of faulty studies with manipulated data.

As a health journalist, your writing can have a direct impact on the health of your readers. It’s funny: a study that says “eat healthy, exercise, don’t smoke” is good for condition X rarely makes a media ripple, even though science confirms again and again that that’s really the best advice for just about everything.

People want quick fixes. People want health to be easy. People want to know that red wine is good for them.
I’ve heard studies that say a glass of red wine per night is good for you from the time that I still thought that alcohol was gross and I would never ever drink (read: quite a while ago). It’s not news. And yet, if you do a Google News search for “red wine” on any given day, you’ll get at least five articles in the first page telling you that red wine is great for some condition!

Caveat: this week is the only exception to that. A flurry of news articles are emerging on a study that has realized that — GASP! — the alcohol in it might not actually be what’s good for you!

But science says that exercise is WAY BETTER FOR YOU THAN WINE,Y’ALL. Science says so AGAIN AND AGAIN. But you don’t see exercise in the media over and over again the way you see wine.

I see this as a phenomenon of divided loyalties. The medical journalist has a number of forces he or she needs to be loyal to:
  • The health of the readers
  • The number of readers
  • Employment — journalists are loyal to the hand that feeds, AKA the paycheck
  • The science

If science and health were really the top loyalties of journalists, we would very, very rarely the red wine studies published. But we see them all the time.

Philosopher Josiah Royce said that to be ethical, we should be loyal to things that harmonize with the loyalties of the community.

But that raises more questions. Humans tend to be more loyal to things that are bad for their health than good for their health.

We don’t get paid if people don’t read what we write. The more people that are subscribing to our paper, the more likely we are to have a job tomorrow in a very volatile media environment.

Medical journalism is also a tricky field, because those who write for widespread audiences have the additional challenge that medicine is so personal. If scientists discovered a miracle cure for some incredibly rare but incredibly dangerous disease, it should be newsworthy — but if you’re not writing for a niche publication, the vast majority of your readers would prefer to skim over it in the news briefs.

But most readers enjoy wine. So some compromise is necessary.

So would I write the story that’s all over the news this week? Yes, yes I would. Because it’s correcting a widely believed news story. Would I write one of the many stories that was all over the news last week, like that red wine prevents old people from falling? That red wine might decrease the risk of breast cancer? That red wine helps builds strong bones?
No. Because we all already know that a little bit of red wine per day has health benefits. But you know what else does ALL OF THOSE THINGS, but better, more often and more efficiently? Good diet and exercise.