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Health care journalists must strive for high standards

Harold Mandel's picture

The public is often hit with contradictory nutrition messages in the media which are confusing. There appears to be a growing interest among the public to tune into the latest health care news. Information about nutrition and other health care issues has become more accessible than ever for the general public due to the internet. However, there are sometimes reports that run into conflict with each other, resulting in confusion for the public.

Adverse outcomes may sometimes be associated with media exposure to contradictory nutrition messages, reported the Journal of Health Communication. Concerns have been rising that the media presents conflicting health information on topics which include cancer screening and nutrition. It has been speculated that exposure to this mixed information leads to increased public confusion, along with less trust in routine health recommendations, and less overall engagement in health behaviors.

There has been a lack of empirical research which has directly addressed the role of media exposure to conflicting health information. This study found that exposure to conflicting information on the health benefits and risks of, for example, wine, coffee, and fish consumption is associated with confusion about which foods are actually best to eat. People often become convinced that nutrition scientists keep changing their minds.

Researchers found evidence that these beliefs may lead people to doubt nutrition and health recommendations in a more general sense, including those that are not mixed with contradictory information. There are concerns about the implications of these findings for healthy eating campaigns and interventions.

In this study researchers have observed that exposure to conflicting news dealing with health benefits of certain foods, vitamins and supplements often leads to confusion and a backlash against nutrition recommendations, reports the Health Behavior News Service, which is part of the Center for Advancing Health.

Rebekah Nagler, Ph.D., who is an assistant professor in University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Minneapolis and author of the study, has noted that the confusion and backlash which occur may make people more likely to ignore not only information which is contradictory, but also widely accepted nutritional advice such as eating a lot of fruits and vegetables and exercising regularly. In this study Nagler analyzed responses which were collected from 631 adults who took part in the Annenberg National Health Communication Survey in 2010. The participants were asked how much conflicting or contradictory information they heard from the media, including:

1: Newspapers

2: Television

3: Radio

4: The internet

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There were four specific nutritional topics covered, including:

1: Red wine or other alcohol

2: Fish

3: Coffee

4: Vitamins or other supplements

Greater than 71 percent of people who were surveyed said that they were exposed to moderate or high levels of contradictory information about nutrition. There was the highest degree of confusion about nutrition in those with the most exposure to contradictory information. There was an association indirectly with backlash against nutritional advice in general in those who expressed the most confusion. This was implied by agreement with such statements as “Dietary recommendations should be taken with a grain of salt,” or “Scientists really don’t know what foods are good for you." The backlash associated with confusion was mildly associated with less of an intention to exercise or eat fruits and vegetables.

A lot of people get their primary health information from the news media. It is of concern that the news media may not make it clear that health care research is constantly evolving. Furthermore, different research institutes may produce conflicting results dealing with similar topics. Also results on related topics may lead to confusion, such as finding that fish containing oils which are heart healthy may be contaminated with mercury, which is not good for you.

Nagler points out that the public may have trouble dealing with the mixed messages they are getting about various health care issues. The fault for this problem may not be entirely with journalists for failing to do a good job explaining the research, because the media landscape has been changing radically as newspapers grow smaller and social media such as blogs and Facebook become a great deal more influential.

Ivan Oransky, M.D.,vice president and global editorial director at MedPage Today and vice president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, has said, "The author points out that there is an association at work here." It is noted that people who are confused about nutrition to begin with may blame the media for their confusion. Oransky suggests that journalists should attempt to avoid relying on information which is based on findings from a single nutrition or health study and instead report on findings from groups of studies. When journalists report on a single study, they should put the information in context.

I have observed a great deal of confusion among many people regarding the mixed messages which they are getting about nutrition and other health care issues from the media. This creates a serious problem which is not easy to solve. A sophisticated understanding of various health care issues brings with it an awareness of often conflicting interpretations of various nutritional and other health care issues with more than one perspective often being valid for consideration at a given time. It is therefore a good idea to keep the health care news flowing at a steady pace to cover these different perspectives, while encouraging journalists to point out any contradictory considerations and other studies.

If the research is ongoing, as is usually the case, than that really should be pointed out. Quality health care is supposed to based on a fluid science which always has a goal of striving for improvements. And so it appears the public may have to learn to cope more effectively with the confusion this may raise, while nevertheless understanding that some basic ideas about good health care may meet with general agreement among health care professionals, such as the basic need for good nutrition, adequate sleep, relaxation, and exercise. Dedicated and ethical journalists and health care providers can help the general public cope more effectively with these realities by simply continuing to work with high standards. And remember, reaching for higher standards also means where criticism is indicated it should be raised.



Very very true
Thanks very much for your interest!