Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Okay, I'll say something nice for a change

And not only that, it's about the much maligned Fourth Estate, your corporate news media, who I spend a good percentage of my time here clobbering. A few years back, I was quoted in this article by Trudy Lieberman in Columbia Journalism Review. Lieberman beat the crap out of the corporate media for their breathless, credulous, coverage of medical "breakthroughs" and deification of medical researchers --

In the name of news and the desire to build audience, the media are stimulating demand for medical tests and treatments that are unproven and untested, and may even be harmful. The lure of stories about medical breakthroughs and miracles is so strong that the press rushes to report on them even if there is little or no evidence that they are safe and effective . . .

And, a lot of the time, it was the drug and medical device companies that were pushing these stories through their PR firms. They even sent out video press releases to local TV stations, that ran them as if they are real news.

Well, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that since 2001, when Trudy wrote the story, things have gotten better in this particular department. The political reporters still have their schoolgirl crush on power, and the unskeptical approach to anonymous senior administration officials hasn't changed, but medical breakthroughs are now covered with a good deal more reserve. After the debacles over Hormone Replacement Therapy, COX-2 inhibitors, the essential failure of the artificial heart, and Judah Folkman not curing cancer after all (he never said he would, but his ideas about angiogenesis inhibition were grossly overhyped by reporters), they finally seem to have gotten the idea. Indeed, they have learned that debunking can make a good story too. Our local TV stations hire real doctors who discuss the latest medical research with reasonable caution. (I suppose the station in Ottumwa may still run the video press releases but I'm not there.)

This opinion is not based on rigorous study, and maybe someone will want to contradict me. But I do read the NYT health/science section every week, and their business section too, which is mostly about health care and drugs (that's not a joke), and I look in on local and national broadcast news -- sampling all the networks -- often enough to keep in touch with the zeitgeist. I also did a quick review of the health sections on the major networks' web sites - CBS, ABC, MSNBC, CNN. This week, at least, they're all pretty good. Maybe it's partly because health care news is also business news, and they don't want to get blamed for misleading investors, that they have grown more skeptical.

Anyway, that brings up the $64,000 question: Why can't they learn the same lesson about war and peace?

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