The unbearable lightness of health science reporting: A week examining italian print media

Luca Iaboli, Luana Caselli, Angelina Filice, Gianpaolo Russi, Eleonora Belletti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Background: Although being an important source of science news information to the public, print news media have often been criticized in their credibility. Health-related content of press media articles has been examined by many studies underlining that information about benefits, risks and costs are often incomplete or inadequate and financial conflicts of interest are rarely reported. However, these studies have focused their analysis on very selected science articles. The present research aimed at adopting a wider explorative approach, by analysing all types of health science information appearing on the Italian national press in one-week period. Moreover, we attempted to score the balance of the articles. Methodology/Principal Findings: We collected 146 health science communication articles defined as articles aiming at improving the reader's knowledge on health from a scientific perspective. Articles were evaluated by 3 independent physicians with respect to different divulgation parameters: benefits, costs, risks, sources of information, disclosure of financial conflicts of interest and balance. Balance was evaluated with regard to exaggerated or non correct claims. The selected articles appeared on 41 Italian national daily newspapers and 41 weekly magazines, representing 89% of national circulation copies: 97 articles (66%) covered common medical treatments or basic scientific research and 49 (34%) were about new medical treatments, procedures, tests or products. We found that only 6/49 (12%) articles on new treatments, procedures, tests or products mentioned costs or risks to patients. Moreover, benefits were always maximized and in 16/49 cases (33%) they were presented in relative rather than absolute terms. The majority of stories (133/146, 91%) did not report any financial conflict of interest. Among these, 15 were shown to underreport them (15/146, 9.5%), as we demonstrated that conflicts of interest did actually exist. Unbalanced articles were 27/146 (18%). Specifically, the probability of unbalanced reporting was significantly increased in stories about a new treatment, procedure, test or product (22/49, 45%), compared to stories covering common treatments or basic scientific research (5/97, 5%) (risk ratio, 8.72). Conclusions/Significance: Consistent with prior research on health science communication in other countries, we report undisclosed costs and risks, emphasized benefits, unrevealed financial conflicts of interest and exaggerated claims in Italian print media. In addition, we show that the risk for a story about a new medical approach to be unbalanced is almost 9 times higher with respect to stories about any other kind of health science-related topics. These findings raise again the fundamental issue whether popular media is detrimental rather than useful to public health. Copyright:

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere9829
JournalPLoS One
Volume5
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Medicine(all)

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