Hoopla Over Health

After rewriting upbeat press releases, too many “health” or “medical” reporters do stories that swing between “new hope” and “no hope.”

After rewriting upbeat press releases, too many “health” or “medical” reporters do stories that swing between “new hope” and “no hope.” 

Either way, hyperbole does not serve the reader, viewer or listener well.

Sometimes a story begins as new hope and appears to glide into no hope.

Both make for great headlines or clickbait on the internet. Most recently, headlines warned that we faced the end of the road for antibiotics — a far step from the known, growing problem of health problems resistant to overused antibiotics.

But it drew audiences.

That also appears to be the fate of Theranos, which promised to run medical tests from a few drops of blood at lower cost than traditional blood tests. It was too good a story to ignore. Then there was founder Elizabeth Holmes, the face of Theranos. She’s a lovely young Silicon Valley techie and entrepreneur who wore Steve Jobs black instead of white lab coats.

Investors loved it. Walgreens embraced it. Holmes became the world’s richest female self-made billionaire. However, serious doubts arose about the technology and results, and feds began investigating. Those results aren’t in yet, but Theranos said it is redoing some tests with older, less-innovative techniques, and some financial news media are saying Holmes’ billions have evaporated.

Then there are the Zika virus and Brazilian babies. It took some time before the true magnitude of the problem began to surface. It went from no hope to, well, maybe new hope.

At first, it wasn’t clear if there was an increase in infants with microcephaly or simply better documentation in a nation with a huge population and shaky public health statistics.

Meanwhile, people talking to reporters and reporters hyping stories to their editors had a clear field. The implication was clear: Zika + pregnancy = microcephaly.

It was perfect for cable and online sites: images of often poor, young women with deformed babies. But it wasn’t clear whether there was a causal relationship between the mosquito-borne Zika virus during pregnancy and the the ghastly birth defect.

I’ve seen this lack of nuance as an insider as a participant in two national long-term prostate cancer-prevention trials.

Over the years, I followed coverage of  “my” life as a experimental subject.

There were no surprises; many stories I read or heard lacked the caveats and nuances reported by the researchers.

The earlier study of finasteride/Proscar came up “new hope.” I enrolled more than 20 years ago when I became age-eligible. My motive was less than altruistic; my father had prostate cancer.

Initial study results were so positive that researchers ended the project early; it would have been unethical to give men the placebo. I was among the lucky subjects; I got the real drug, not the placebo.

That study, however, included an unhappy result. Many men who took the little blue Proscar pill every day for seven years and developed prostate cancer got a hellish case. I didn’t see that in the news stories reporting the positive results.

The other study asked whether vitamin E or selenium or both prevented or postponed prostate cancer. It came up worse than “no hope.” Neither supplement nor the two together prevented or postponed prostate cancer, but a worrisome number of men developed surprising and serious health problems. The project was canceled.

As in too much medical reporting, negative results don’t get the gee-whiz coverage of successful or hopeful experiments. That was the case of the vitamin E and selenium study.

Not only reporters and their editors are at fault. Organizations, institutions and researchers in the toxic competition for dollars all can be complicit.

Add ubiquitous public relations people, whose value is measured by positive media mentions of their clients’ products or treatments, and you have today’s dysfunctional approach to public infor-mation about medical advances, failures, experiments, etc.

The latest documentation of this systemic malfeasance in American news media comes from the journal JAMA Oncology. I ran across the study on the Canadian Broadcast Corp. website, and JAMA provided a full text.

The study investigated “the use of modest and superlative descriptors in contemporary news articles regarding cancer drugs.” The investigators also sought to determine who uses this inflated language.

The context is simple: “Whereas most new cancer drugs afford modest benefits, approved drugs or those in development may be heralded as ‘game-changers’ or ‘breakthroughs’ in the lay press.”

Given the broader reach of the news media compared to medical journals, “Omission of medical context or use of inflated descriptors may lead to mis-understandings among readers.”

Hyperbole wins and readers lose. It’s hoopla over health.

The study asked Google News for 10 superlatives in conjunction with “cancer drug.” Examples were found for “breakthrough,” “miracle,” “game-changer,” “revolutionary,” “groundbreaking” and “cure.”  The study asked about but Google reported no examples of “home run,” “transformative,” “life saver” and “marvel” in the requested search.

For June 21 through 25 last year, the study found 94 articles from 66 news outlets that made 97 superlative mentions referring to 36 specific drugs. Three articles used superlatives but didn’t name the drugs.

That “half (18 of 36) of drugs described had not received Food and Drug Administration approval” by the test period didn’t deter the reporters.

“For 5 of 36 (14 percent of) drugs, superlatives were used in the absence of clinical data (i.e. based solely on mouse, cell culture, and/or preclinical work).”

Sources of the superlative were journalists (55 percent), physicians (27 percent), industry experts (9 percent), patients (8 percent) and a  member of Congress (1 percent). In 55 percent of the stories,  the superlative was used by the writer without any other attribution.

The study found superlatives used for “all types of medications, including those such as therapeutic cancer vaccines, which historically have low response rates, and drugs that have not yet shown overall survival benefits. Of concern, 14 percent of drugs were praised without any human data.”

The study’s authors also were troubled by evidence that too many journalists “may not have the expertise to identify the most promising medical therapies, or what magnitude of benefit warrants a superlative.”

That could explain the frequency of sloppy language identified in the study.
 

Curmudgon notes:

•A recent Cincinnati Enquirer story went global, aided and abetted by the Associated Press. It was perfect click bait:The story said that at 96, Cincinnatian Henry Heimlich used his Maneuver for the first time to save a life.One of his sons, Peter — a longtime critic of his father’s medical claims — pounced: how could it be a “first” when the retired surgeon previously claimed the same thing about an incident in 2001?That would make the current story wrong.Unless the elder Heimlich invented that earlier incident at Cincinnati’s Bankers Club.If he lied previously, then saving Patty Ris at Cincinnati’s Deupree House senior residence really was Heimlich’s “first” use of the Maneuver to save a life and the Enquirer story was correct.The ensuing fuss says more about journalism than the retired surgeon’s lifelong lust for fame. Follow me, please. Late last month, Henry Heimlich used abdominal thrusts to dislodge food caught in dinner partner Patty Ris’ windpipe. A few days later, The Enquirer reported the incident and Heimlich’s claim that this was the first time he’d used it. It was all over the internet within hours. After Peter Heimlich alerted The Enquirer and others to a similar claim years ago, the paper backed away from the novelty. It assigned a second reporter to redo the story, adding and explaining doubts about the “first” in the longest crawl-back I can remember. That suggests the first reporter didn’t check clips or that there was no Enquirer story about the 2001 Bankers Club incident, which adds to the weirdness of this entire episode. Whatever the facts, one “first” is sufficient, and it’s the uncertainty that becomes the story. Peter Heimlich told me that in addition to The Enquirer and AP, “these are some of the news outlets I filed corrections requests with last week:

CNN

,

NBC News

,

The New York Daily News

, and

WCPO-TV

. At this writing, none have corrected the errors.”Meanwhile, National Heimlich Maneuver Day, June 1, passed unnoticed. Doubts about the 2001 story are not new. In 2008, a blogger, The Dean of Cincinnati aka Jason Haap, wrote to the website

hogglestock.com

, raising doubts about Heimlich’s use of the maneuver at the Bankers Club. Haap tried to pin down that story in 2005 in an article titled “Bankers Club, 2001: Dr. Heimlich to the rescue?” Haap said “reporters at major media outlets —

The New Yorker

,

BBC News

and the

Chicago Sun-Times

— all published a story that Dr. Heimlich told them, that in 2001 he rescued a choking victim using the Heimlich maneuver at the Bankers Club, a well-known private club here in Cincinnati. “Despite repeated attempts to verify the story with Dr. Heimlich, his press agent, and a Banker’s Club employee who provided the information to one reporter, no one would provide any facts which might substantiate the story: the date, the alleged victim’s name, any witnesses, etc.“So did those major media outlets get snookered? If so, nobody’s talking.”Except Henry Heimlich. •Initial online lynch mob reactions to the killing of a Cincinnati Zoo gorilla included two stunningly ugly comments. One said Harambe was killed because he was black, 17, and unarmed. Another damned “white privilege” in killing Harambe to protect then-unnamed Isiah Gregg. That string appeared to end when a third comment noted that Isiah was black, not white.   •It took days before The Enquirer and other news media decided whether Isiah is three or four. The paper finally carried an editor’s note , saying “the boy is 3 years old. Police said late Tuesday they had received ‘conflicting reports’ on the boy's age but confirmed Tuesday that he is 3.”•This isn’t the first violent incident to draw federal regulatory attention to the Cincinnati Zoo. In 1990, keeper Laurie Stober lost her right forearm to Icy, a polar bear. She and Icy both survived the bloody encounter. •There never has been a shortage of comely young women around motor racing, whether NASCAR, dirt track or grand prix. Photographers love them; after all, how many eyeballs can images of exhaust systems draw? The NYTimes took this a step further in a recent photo of Sebastian Vettel practicing in his Ferrari for the Monaco grand prix. Vettel and his Formula One car are distant background for the overhead shot of a very busty woman sunning herself on a terrace over the street. •Context is part of accuracy. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was not the first massive assault on a Japanese city, and it might not have been the deadliest. After learning how incendiary bombs created self-sustaining fire storms in German cities, American bombers deliberately created a firestorm in Tokyo. Casualty figures vary widely, but estimates of the dead approach or exceed the Hiroshima toll. •In the run-up interviews to President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, I missed interviews with GIs who — after VE Day — were grateful that the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki sped Japan’s surrender. Many, like my father, a combat surgeon in Europe, knew he’d be redeployed to the Pacific. •“Stolen valor” is a bizarre behavior. It goes way beyond imitation or resume padding. Often it seems to involve middle-aged men who wear military uniforms and/or medals they did not earn. Others falsely embellish their honors. For instance, American admiral Jeremy Boorda destroyed his career after adding V for valor to his earned Bronze Star ribbons. That V, like the Purple Heart or Combat Infantryman’s badge, is special. Unlike some others, however, he apparently was told he could wear the V, but a subsequent investigation told him it was an error. He committed suicide. Stolen valor is in the news again with growing attention to whether Chris Kyle claimed unearned combat honors. Even without questioned medals, he earned honor and fame as a particularly lethal Navy SEAL sniper. He claimed two Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars, all for valor. Asked by the investigative website Intercept, the Navy said Kyle earned one Silver Star and three Bronze Stars for valor. Intercept said that “Current and former Navy SEALs interviewed for this article ... did not dispute Kyle’s heroism in combat, but saw the inflation of his medal count as significant because they consider battlefield embellishments to be dishonorable.”•Conservatives have formed their firing squad and yes, it’s a circle.

Pointing in. Breitbart.com

again took aim at William Kristol , editor of the neo-con Weekly Standard , and his oft-repeated revulsion at Trump as the Republican candidate. Breitbart gets all squishy at Kristol’s call for an independent and truly conservative alternative candidate.

Breitbart.com

holds anti-Trump National Review , the longtime organ of modern conservatism, in the same contempt. •Morning Market Place on NPR reported that the “death rate” for Americans is rising. It isn’t. It’s still 100 percent. What the program meant but didn’t say was deaths per year per 100,000 Americans are rising.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]