Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Not just better health reporting, but less

A new report from the King's Fund by Anna Coote and Roger Harrabin notes how the way in which health is reported is completely skewed, focusing on crises and unusual risks as newsworthy rather than reflecting the real risks to our health. For example, reports of vCJD and SARS in the UK were vastly higher than the number of deaths from these conditions would appear to warrant, while the reverse would seem to be true for risk factors like smoking and obesity.

The basic observation the report makes about media coverage is correct. There was little point in the media telling us all about SARS, for example, when there was only one real case of it in the UK, except as an item of foreign news. But this is where the analysis goes awry. The authors conclude that the media is inherently sensationalist and what we need is more coverage of the 'correct' message: quit smoking, watch what you eat, exercise more etc. In fact, what we really need is less coverage of health issues full stop.

The public does not need a daily diet of health stories. In the past, an occasionally-referenced medical encyclopaedia was sufficient for most families. We had such a book in our house - 'Enquire Within (About Everything)'. There were thirty pages on common maladies, and some uncommon ones, too. But alongside information on mumps and measles was stuff about diptheria, tuberculosis and rickets, and most of the content of that book would now be utterly redundant.

What we don't need is the 'alternative risk' scenario put forward by Coote and Harrabin. The dangers of obesity, sunbathing and mobile phones are largely fictitious. Smoking regularly is a problem, but nobody seriously needs that pointed out to them anymore than it has been.

And blaming the media misses the important changes that have occured in society. Why do so many newspapers and TV programmes carry substantial health segments? People are watching and reading this stuff because they are feeling more isolated and vulnerable than ever before. Hence, the obsession with the self. The media may exacerbate these trends, but they didn't create them.

Health in the News: Risk, reporting and media influence, King's Fund


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