HARMFUL HEADLINES: The ethics of reporting health findings

Sabrina Stewart is a student at Dartmouth College who is visiting the Uehiro Centre this term.

Newspaper health sections yield many headlines and subsequent articles that do not accurately reflect the research publication that is being reported. One article, “Boozing after a heart attack could help you live longer, research reveals” discusses the finding that drinking after a heart attack is beneficial. The headline is at best misleading, and at worse deceptive: the article fails to report the specific frequency of consumption required to derive the stated benefits, the fact that the benefits would depend on the severity of the myocardial infarction, and that any benefit would be lost by intermittent binge drinking. The publication was significant as it was a large-scale study that complemented previous findings, and could therefore be expected to have an effect on people’s health decisions.

This article was taken from the Metro, a free newspaper distributed in London and the South-East of England targeted at commuters. The self-reported estimated readership is just under two million people. If this figure is accurate, The Metro has the third largest newspaper audience in the United Kingdom, after the Sun and the Daily Mail. This capacity to influence such a significant audience comes with responsibility.

There are various Codes of Practice governing the actions of researchers and doctors to ensure unbiased and truthful information is provided to patients and clinical trial participants in order to obtain informed consent. Why is health reporting not subject to the same strict regulation when it carries similar implications for shaping people’s choices regarding their well-being?

The duty of a journalist is to educate and inform the reader of current events that pertain to them, in order to improve their understanding of a situation. But, in attempting to disseminate new information outside of the academic community, are journalists entirely responsible for inaccuracies in their “translation” of science literature? Who is to blame for the contorted information? Is it the journalists’ malicious intent to misinform the public to generate unfounded fear or false hope, or a lack of understanding of the research and the implications of the results?

I will not attempt to answer these questions, as we have yet to establish who has the duty to ensure that the public is informed whenever research is published that could affect individuals or their loved ones. Is it the duty of each person to scour the top journals frequently and decode the specific and very conceptual prose in order to judge the significance and importance of certain results? This suggestion is problematic for a number of reasons. If you are unaffiliated with an academic institution, it is expensive to gain access to the relevant articles, and it is not always obvious which journals contain pertinent information to the individual. Furthermore, if you do not have the benefit of a scientific education, it would take considerable effort and time to understand each individual paper.

The journalist may have free access to journals, however, they are often under significant time constraints to gain an understanding from the dense literature and to “translate” and summarize the findings for an article of a designated length. “Translating” scientific findings without losing scientific accuracy and specificity requires: proficient understanding of the hypothesis that is being investigated, knowledge of how to evaluate the quality of the methods, and an ability to judge whether the results are significant. This skillset describes that of a scientist or researcher who is publishing their findings. They have the understanding and qualifications to secure the grant for the study, to obtain the informed consent from the participants, and to alert the academic community of their results and methods. Scientific papers need to accurately represent the study, to explain the implications of its results and to encourage discussion and further research or to confirm previous findings.

Of course, scientists also have time constraints for publishing their work, to meet a deadline to guarantee future funding and to ensure that they publish their results before a competing lab. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect them to take full responsibility for making their research accessible to all. However, the repercussions of inaccurate reporting by journalists could undermine the findings by encouraging decisions and conduct that was not advised in the original paper. This incorrect “guidance” could cause irreparable damage and confusion and could lead to a substantial campaign to clarify the results of the study that may never completely change people’s minds. An example of an unfounded and unresolved media campaign concerns the safety of MSG, a common additive in Chinese cooking. Despite many studies that prove the safety of MSG, many restaurants still advertise MSG-free food for fear of losing customers who maintain the false believe that MSG causes ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’.

Future misinformation may provoke more serious changes in behavior that could have major health consequences for those involved. Perhaps scientists and researchers have a duty to communicate their research findings in a manner that is informative for everyone; and journalists have the responsibility to publicize this information in a way that does not exaggerate or alter the findings to make a more eye-catching or sensational headline.


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