Health in the Headlines: The Stories behind the Stories

Synopsis

Reporting on health risks is rarely simple and straightforward. Scientific findings are often complex and ambiguous. Even researchers may disagree on their import. Relatively few journalists have special training in science or medicine. Sources of information are often biased, and there is constant pressure to convert dry, technical material into compelling, readable stories. No wonder reporters sometimes exaggerate or otherwise misinterpret the risks, or overemphasize the emotional side of scientific stories, or unwittingly introduce inaccuracies or make important omissions. All this leaves us--the newspaper reader or TV viewer--with many unanswered questions: Is borderline cholesterol a significant health risk? Has global warming already started? Is Alar a serious threat? Is it really dangerous to live near a nuclear reactor? In Health in the Headlines, Stephen Klaidman illuminates the tangle of science, politics, and economics that often obscures health reporting, focusing on seven major stories: EDB, radon, nuclear power, the greenhouse effect, AIDS, cholesterol, and smoking. In each section, Klaidman vividly recounts how the story developed and evaluates how the press performed. In the chapter on AIDS, for instance, he traces the story from the first reports by the CDC and the early articles by The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, to the dramatic increase in coverage following Rock Hudson's death. Klaidman finds that the science coverage of the AIDS crisis was highly competent, but the coverage of the human story and especially the political story (the Reagan Administration's inadequate funding of AIDS research, despite calling it their "number one health priority") was generally poor--on the rare occasion when they covered the story at all, most reporters uncritically accepted the Administration's side over that of AIDS activists (who were predominantly gay). Throughout the book, Klaidman provides illuminating insights into health-care reporting and he issues numerous caveats. He points out, for instance, that while reporters sometimes exaggerate health risks (such as at Love Canal), the very real threat posed by radon has been underplayed by the press, partly because there is no industry or government agency to cast as villain. And he warns that visual images used to dramatize a story may also skew it: an extremely rare side-effect of a drug, when featured on TV, leads to distorted gut-level conclusions about risk. Every day we hear news on cholesterol, asbestos, global warming--stories that are not only upsetting, but frequently confusing. Health in the Headlines gives us the insight to make more sense of these daily reports, so that we can better assess our risks and make more informed judgments.