How We Can Tackle the Threats Posed to Public Health by Irresponsible News Reports

In this period of post-truths, it is untenable to have the progress of medicine and public health, as well as trust in science, be eroded by irresponsible sections of the media – either due to ignorance or conflicts of interest.

We often read ‘too good to be true’ news reports in the mainstream mass media, not to mention the numerous fake reports that spread through social media as well. For example, in January 2017, several Indian newspapers sported the headline “Indian pepper may soon be a cancer drug”. Their reports were based entirely on an academic research study published in a scientific journal investigating the X-ray crystal structure of a putative target of the Indian pepper plant – while even by the most ambitious estimates, it may take another decade for this to be moved from the lab bench to the clinic. However, that may not deter people from using more pepper in their diet in the hope of preventing or treating cancer.

Unfortunately, this report is not isolated. The vast majority of media reports on scientific research are either hyped up or simply lack context or sensible content. Such reports often tout the anti-cancer benefits of commonly used dietary ingredients such as ginger and rare exotic fruits like the simarouba. In fact, the price of the latter escalated while the fruit also gained in popularity in Kerala due to the misguided impression that it could cure cancer. The negative economic impact of such activities is significant in low- and middle-income countries, where access to good quality fruits and vegetable are suboptimal.

Occasionally, such reports harm communities by inadvertently contributing to the outbreak of disease. We have seen outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in regions where the media has played into the hands of anti-vaccine groups. In Kerala, parts of the mainstream have rallied against the boon of vaccination, threatening decades of progress in public healthcare. Outbreaks of diphtheria have been reported in regions where a combination of anti-vaccine news media along with conspiracy theorists have run amok with their fear mongering stories. The media doesn’t often present balanced and nuanced viewpoints. Another common piece of misinformation advanced by the mainstream press is the putative benefit of papaya in dengue fever. Various media outlets have reported on the benefits of papaya, especially in increasing platelet count (e.g. here and here). On the other hand, well-conducted clinical trials have shown that patients with dengue fever and low platelet counts (thrombocytopenia) have resolved spontaneously – papaya or no papaya.

What can we do to change this situation? In this era where research communication is probably as crucial to public health as peer-reviewed publication in a journal, it is high time that we develop strategies to improve it. Three solutions in particular can be implemented with relative ease.

First, we must design short online courses that are freely available to the general public and journalists. They must highlight best practices in research communication. A survey among journalists had found that a large majority of them self-reported a lack of understanding of basic principles of scientific data analysis and reporting. So such a course should include how the context of research matters, whether the experiment was conducted in an animal model or in humans, the importance of a well-designed randomised clinical trial and the issues surrounding conflicts of interest in research.  

Second, major mainstream news outlets should consider recruiting qualified medical and scientific personnel into their editorial boards in an advisory role. It would greatly enhance the reliability of the media company and provide greater accuracy in reporting scientific research.

Finally, major medical and scientific organisations should provide a panel of experts who are available for comments on stories related to their area of specialisation. For example, the Indian Academy of Paediatrics could have a group of a dozen doctors from their organisation available to be contacted for stories related to vaccinations or disease outbreaks in children. Similarly, the Indian Academy of Science could constitute experts who could be freely contacted by journalists for comments and feedback on the latest research reports in major scientific journals. Another avenue to seek out expert opinion would be on Twitter, where several scientists are active and accessible.7

In this period of post-truths, it is untenable to have the progress of medicine and public health, as well as trust in science, be eroded by irresponsible sections of the media – either due to ignorance or conflicts of interest. At the same time, the blame for the fallout arising from miscommunication can’t be laid squarely at the feet of the media. Scientists and medical professionals should exercise greater resolve in producing quality scientific research and communicating it as well. Because if we do not take charge of the narrative, it will be taken over by persons more than willing to provide alternative facts. And for the sake of what we love, we cannot let that happen.

Nasvin Imamudeen graduated from the Medical College of Thiruvananthapuram and is currently a clinical observer at the University of Kentucky Hospital. Aju Mathew is a medical oncologist and haematologist at the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center, an NCI-designated cancer centre in Lexington, Kentucky in USA. @ajumathew_

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