June 17, 2011

Reporting of health risks in the media

New research published in the journal Public Understanding of Science from a group of British researchers including Ben Goldacre of Bad Science has found that misreporting of dietary advice by UK newspapers is widespread and may contribute to public misconceptions about food and health.

The authors took the Top 10 bestselling UK newspapers for a week and evaluated the evidence for every single health claim reported on using the best currently available published research. Each claim was graded using two standard systems for categorising the strength of evidence.

They found 111 health claims were made in those UK newspapers over one week and in only 15% of those claims the evidence was “convincing”.

For more details and limitations on the study, see this Guardian article by Ben Goldacre in which he concludes:

It seems that the majority of health claims made, in a large representative sample of UK national newspapers, are supported only by the weakest possible forms of evidence.

People who work in public health bend over backwards to disseminate evidence-based information to the public. I wonder if they should also focus on documenting and addressing the harm done by journalists.

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Rachel Cunliffe is the co-director of CensusAtSchool and currently consults for the Department of Statistics. Her interests include statistical literacy, social media and blogging. See all posts by Rachel Cunliffe »

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