Science Journalists Cross the Line

The Wall Street Journal is the latest of many publications to publish skewed stories about scientific developments, with dangerous consequences for the health care industry.

10.28.08 8:34 PM ET

The Wall Street Journal today has a big splash, "CT Scans Gain Favor as Option for Colonoscopy." But in this 1,300-word article, there isn't one mention of the recent statement by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force

that the evidence is insufficient to assess the benefits and harms of computed tomographic colonography[and that]there is potential for both benefit and harm. Potential harms arise from additional diagnostic testing and procedures for lesions found incidentally, which may have no clinical significance. This additional testing also has the potential to burden the patient and adversely impact the health system.

Such stories raise undue demand for unproven technologies, and unrealistic expectations of what screening—and health care—can achieve.

The USPSTF is often considered the “gold standard” on preventive health recommendations.

Its new statement on colon cancer screening was issued just 3 weeks ago, so it isn't like it gathered dust or is outdated.

And it's written by independent experts from various fields with no skin in the game—not by radiologists or gastroenterologists or by any interest group.

Insufficient evidence. Harms may occur. Why isn't that part of the story?

Yet it keeps happening.

On our website, where we evaluate and grade health news coverage, we recently reviewed another similarly cheerleading one-sided story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

We’ve seen an NBC News reporter promote prostate cancer screening in conflict with evidence-based recommendations.

The same network had a reporter endorse lung cancer screening—crossing the line into advocacy journalism that is impossible to defend.

CNN has advocated screening tests for men and women in conflict with expert reviews of the evidence.

You want to talk about health policy and health care reform? This is not a bad place to start. A few simple reminders could guide journalists and the public:

  • Newer isn’t always better.
  • More isn’t always better.
  • Screening doesn’t make sense for everyone.
  • Many screening tests do good; many also do harm.

Such stories stoke the fears of the “worried well.” They raise undue demand for unproven technologies. They raise unrealistic expectations of what screening—and health care—can achieve.

And they overlook evidence, harms and costs.

Trudy Lieberman wrote a column for the Columbia Journalism Review asking if journalists deserve some of the blame for the high cost of health care when they write stories like this.

We spend more on health care than any other country on the globe, yet we have outcomes for some conditions that are worse than developing countries. And we still have more than 40-million neighbors who are uninsured.

That might be a better reference point for a discussion on health care reform and health policy than what we get with from stories that make us all think that we should be screened because we all have something silent lurking inside us that should be found and treated.