Mainstream Media – Fake News And Your Health
By Graham Vanbergen – Fake news is everywhere, it has been for years and nowhere has it been more prevalent than health. Well, of course there was Tony Blair and his band of merry propagandists, then there’s Brexit, Trump, Syria, reports on the economy, the health of the EU – it really is never ending nowadays and the problem of knowing what to believe.
Nevertheless, health issues are important to us all and without doubt almost all of us are persuaded by the things we read.
In terms of Britain’s media, the reality is that there are 5 billionaires who run our media, and they have huge power in our democracy forcing political parties to prioritise their wishes over the wishes of the British public. These 5 people not only own 80% of the newspapers we read every day, they also own TV stations, press agencies, book companies, cinemas and the like – so everything we think or speak about in Britain is almost entirely influenced by these 5 individuals.
The men in control are : Rupert Murdoch, Jonathon Harmsworth, Richard Desmond and the Barclay’s Twins. None of these people live in Britain.
Then we have just five Internet Service Providers in Britain who get to control what 87% of people get to see on their devices. Click-baiting to raise advertising revenue is high on the agenda. To highlight the manipulation of information, let’s take health related news for a ‘spin’.
The Independent recently ran with what they thought was an ‘Exclusive’ entitled “REVEALED: HOW DANGEROUS FAKE HEALTH NEWS CONQUERED FACEBOOK” They start their ‘exclusive report with the words “Misinformation published by conspiracy sites about serious health conditions is often shared more widely than evidence-based reports from reputable news organisations.”
The Independent goes on to say that “of the 20 most-shared articles on Facebook in 2016 with the word “cancer” in the headline, more than half report were discredited by doctors and health authorities.”
The article itself may have some validity but as you are about to learn, the mainstream media, particularly the press combined with an online presence have enormous leverage as they have captured the vast majority of the news related market. For instance, BBC News online regularly has 250 million hits a month.
It’s a pity then that The Independent, The Sun and BBC News, whilst giving accurate overviews of research of a health story about breast cancer drugs rather went for sensationalism to increase readership and not the facts, which is more important.
According to the experts, The Independent’s headline: “One in five breast cancer patients not receiving new treatment that could benefit them,” suggests the drugs are being deliberately withheld, when in fact there had not previously been any suggestion they could help, and we still don’t know whether they are helpful.
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Worse, the type of research carried out is good at generating theories but not much else. Clinical trials are required. And as NHS Choices points out there were potential conflicts of interest as three of the researchers have a patent for the code and intellectual property rights of the algorithm used to identify the condition and another researcher was involved in the invention of the equipment that would be used for testing the condition. In addition it’s not clear how the researchers selected people to take part in the study. In other words, there’s some encouraging research and findings but the facts purported by “reputable news organisations’ is, at best, questionable.
A very quick look at NHS Choices and one can see why this service is available within the health service. The newspapers are churning out scare stories purely for click-baiting readers to the benefit of their advertisers.
For instance, The Sun inaccurately claimed that, “Ibuprofen – the most common of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) – increased the risk of cardiac arrest risk by a staggering 50 per cent”.
“Most cancers are caused by random mistakes in the genetic code when cells divide out of the blue, new research shows,” the Daily Mail reported. Not so says NHS Choices who went on to accuse the Mail of making misleading statements about the research.
“The pill can protect women from cancer for 30 years,” is the front page headline in the Daily Mirror. Not statistically significant say the experts at NHS Choices. It says that we should not lose sight of this study’s limitations and that it’s not possible to say that taking the pill prevented women from getting certain cancers.
“It’s tea time! How at least two cups a day can shield you from dementia,” reports the Mail Online. This rather optimistic headline reports on a Singaporean study of around 900 Chinese people aged 55 and above. NHS Choices debunked the Mail’s dementia claims by ending their conclusion with “This study, on its own, does not prove that drinking tea will stop you from getting dementia.”
NHS Choices is a service intended for both the public and health professionals to explain the facts behind the headlines and give a better understanding of the science that makes the news.
We did a little bit of research ourselves and here’s what we found. In little more than three months NHS Choices has reported on 85 cases of dodgy health reports in the news that it wanted to clear up. Not one single report criticised came from ‘alternative’ news sources – but that’s not surprising given the vastly bigger audiences of mainstream news outlets.
Listed below are the number of stories NHS Choices wanted to correct by outlet – we leave it to you to make your own mind up as to what to believe next time you read something in the press.
Of 85 news stories featured for correction or comment these news outlets were represented (sometimes more on the same article):
Sky News 1, Daily Express 1
The Independent 3
The Mirror 4
The Telegraph 5
The Sun 11
BBC News 21
Daily Mail/Mail online 32
In reverse order of the number of total stories read by readers of NHS choices in terms of popularity, No10 was about painkillers, then exercise, pubic hair, pubic hair again, sleeping babies, heart disease, gut bacteria, talc and cancer, dementia and lastly the Zika virus. 9 out of the top 10 stories were distorted by the mainstream media.
In reality, media outlets peddling health news are playing a dangerous game with peoples lives and this seems to be frustrating industry professionals. In the past few years more professionals have come forward to share a truth that says it all when it comes to mainstream media using our health fears as way to generate profit – by lying. One such authority is Dr. Richard Horton, the current editor-in-chief of the Lancet – considered to be one of the most well respected peer-reviewed medical journals in the world.
Dr. Horton recently published a statement declaring that a lot of published research is in fact unreliable at best, if not completely false.
“Much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.”
This is damning evidence but add in a desperately struggling media with non-stop declines in revenue year-on-year and the result is a toxic mix not best suited to truth telling.
Our report Top Censored Story of 2015-16 – The Lies Of Evidence-Based Medical Studies should give some comfort to those worried about health news appearing in the press designed to capture and frighten audiences for profit.
When it comes to health matters – don’t believe what you might read in mainstream media because the chances are, as Dr Horton says. it’s quite simply probably not true.