Know the Science: The Facts About Health News Stories
Understanding Health News
Complementary Health Approaches In the News
News stories about complementary approaches to health are often on television, the Internet, and in magazines and newspapers.
In fact, the media is one of our main sources of information when we make decisions about complementary health approaches. While many news reports are reliable, some are missing important information, and some are confusing, conflicting, or misleading.
Missing Information From Health Stories
Health stories in the media teach us about the importance of health issues and change how we think and what we do about our health. High-quality news reports give us realistic expectations and inform the medical community about medical advances. But news stories about complementary health approaches often lack details that could help us make good decisions about our health.
What information is sometimes missing from news stories?
- How well one approach works compared with another
- The side effects of an approach
- Whether a study’s results are “statistically significant”—meaning they didn't happen just by chance
- Whether the study was done in animals or in people
What's Missing: Important Details!
A 2011 news story reported on a study comparing the conventional flu medicine Tamiflu, a common Chinese herbal flu product called maxingshigan–yinqiaosan, and the combination of the two.
Compared with no treatment, the combination helped relieve participants’ fevers sooner, the news story explained.
But what was missing from the news story?
What was missing: The story didn’t say that participants’ fevers went down only about 11 hours sooner with the combination of products, which readers may want to know when they’re deciding whether to use the products. The story also didn’t mention that none of the products helped with symptoms such as cough and sore throat.
What's Missing: Information on Side Effects!
Potential harmful side effects of a complementary health approach and the quality of the evidence supporting a study's findings are sometimes left out or not fully explained in health news stories.
One lengthy news story from 2010 talked about using fish oil during pregnancy.
What was missing from the news story?
What was missing: This story did not mention the possible side effects of fish oil, like upset stomach and interactions with prescription or over-the-counter medications.
What's Missing: The Full Story!
Another news story reported that men and women in a study who took vitamin A were 60 percent less likely to develop melanoma than those participants who did not take it. But as the story points out “the reduced risk was more pronounced in women than men.”
What was missing from the news story?
What was missing: What the story didn’t say was that the reduced risk for men was not “statistically significant,” meaning that the reduction was so small it might have been due to chance. That’s very different than a 60 percent reduction. The study’s authors estimated that among women in the general population, regular vitamin A use would reduce the risk for melanoma by 35 to 90 percent.
What's Missing: Humans!
Media stories sometimes report the results of studies done only on animals without explaining that such basic science may have little immediate significance to people.
For example, a 2010 news story reported that dark chocolate may help guard against brain injury after a stroke.
What was missing from the news story?
What was missing: The story did not say that the study was done on mice.
Conflicting Health News
Media reports about new medical research findings sometimes give conflicting information. You may see a news report that a health product or approach is good for you, and later see another news report that it’s not. Why do you think there is conflicting information in media reports?
That's not the right answer. Please try again!
Right! Researchers report their findings as they complete their studies, and new studies sometimes disagree with earlier discoveries. For example, studies have shown that red wine has some heart-healthy benefits, and that resveratrol (an ingredient found in red wine) may slow the growth of breast cancer cells. However, previous studies have shown that alcohol consumption of any type can modestly increase breast cancer risk. It's a good idea to look for statements by medical experts, who often put the new study and any conflicting messages into context. Once there has been enough research conducted, experts evaluate all of the research together.
Accuracy in the Media
Unless you read and understand the original sources for the story, it can be difficult to know whether a news story is misleading. But the likelihood that the story is correct increases if it:
- Comes from a media outlet, like a news station or Web site, that isn’t trying to promote a point of view or cause
- Was written by a science or health reporter trained to understand medical findings
- Includes quotes from experts not connected to the study, for a more objective take on the findings or to show another point of view.
What the Media Says About Complementary Health Approaches
There's not a lot of research about how the media reports on complementary health approaches. However, existing research has found that:
- Many news stories say complementary health approaches should be used with conventional medicine not instead of it.
- Media reports tend to describe complementary approaches as a treatment for an illness or specific symptoms, even though people also use complementary approaches to try to improve their overall health and to prevent illness.
- The tone of news reports on complementary approaches is generally positive, but that may be because the reports often leave out potential risks.
Is It Real Online News? Or Just Advertising?
In April 2011, the Federal Trade Commission warned the public about fake online news sites promoting an acai berry “weight-loss” product.
On a typical fake “news” site, a story described an investigation in which a reporter used the product for several weeks, with “dramatic” results. The site looked real, but it was actually an advertisement. Everything was fake: there was no reporter, no news organization, and no investigation. The only real things were the links to a sales site that appeared in the story and elsewhere on the Web page.
Which of the following do you think may be an indication that a “news” site is fake? (Check all that apply.)
Wrong—Including a quote from an independent expert does not indicate a site is fake.
Wrong—Discussing the limitations of research does not indicate a site is fake.
Right! All of the checked signs are warnings that a site may be fake.
Checklist for Understanding Health News Stories
To figure out if a news report about a complementary health approach is giving you the full story, you should ask yourself these questions.
9 Questions to Ask
1. Was the product, procedure, or device tested on people? Findings from animal or laboratory research may not be immediately meaningful to your health.
2. Are there alternatives to the approach being discussed? You want to know what is already available, so you can compare your options.
3. Were enough people studied? When the number of people in a study is small, the results aren't as strong.
4. Were the results big enough to be meaningful to you? A small difference between two approaches might interest scientists but be of little importance to your health or quality of life.
5. Did the researchers consider the many things that can influence results, such as participants’ general health or health habits, or discuss the limitations of their results?
6. Were the study participants similar to you in ways that may matter, such as age, race, or gender?
7. Was the study lengthy enough to show long-term benefits or risks? Natural products may take time before they show benefits; some side effects may take months or years to show up.
8. Have other researchers had similar results? One study rarely proves anything.
9. Was the study funded by a group that would profit financially from the study findings? If so, you should be wary of the results.
Reading, watching, or listening to health news about complementary health approaches can help you learn and stay informed about new medical findings. However, there’s a lot of important information to consider before you try a complementary approach featured in the news. Remember, no matter how promising an approach may sound, it’s important to talk about it with your health care providers before you try it.
This page last modified January 29, 2016