Fear-mongering and clickbait
While sipping a glass of wine with dinner last night, my ears perked up when I heard a teaser for NBC Nightly News: “New report links even light alcohol intake with increased risk of cancer.”
Oh, boy, I thought. Here we go again.
I don’t like network news because of this kind of lousy health reporting (I just wanted to see local election returns). Again and again, research is taken out of context or blown out of proportion simply to use as clickbait. Argh.
My favorite health news website, Health News Review, agrees with me, and luckily they were quick to post a rebuttal to the Nightly News’ fear-mongering piece.
But instead of communicating those risks in a way that would educate and inform, NBC’s coverage was an example of misinformation and fear-mongering.
What’s truly staggering here is NBC’s failure to provide any context around these statistics. 500% is a big, scary number. But what does it really mean and how worried should viewers be? Without knowing how common these cancers are to begin with, it’s impossible to say. A 500% increase to a tiny number might still leave us with a very small risk.
Don’t trust everything you hear on TV
Headlines do not make good health advice.
I’ve posted before that I don’t trust TV personalities with medical degrees. Somewhere along the line, their priorities get a bit skewed, I think. (I’m looking at you, Dr. Oz.)
The NBC piece was produced by physician medical correspondent John Torres, MD — the latest in a long line of such MD-journalists at the network. But those MD credentials don’t seem to add much when it comes to reporting the news in a credible, nuanced fashion. We’ve cataloged many examples of problematic MD-journalist stories over the years at NBC and other networks.
The upshot: viewers who think an MD byline ensures the ultimate in accurate and balanced TV reporting should think again.
Amen to that.
The limits of observational studies
I’ve talked about the limitations of these type of nutritional and lifestyle studies before, in my recent post about fats, carbohydrates and heart disease.
The bottom line is moderation.
Moderate drinking is defined as one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.
I rarely have more than one drink in a day and I NEVER binge drink—have 4 or more drinks in under two hours (that’s actually really bad for your liver).
Do I think alcohol is healthy? No, not really. Do I think it’s going to shorten my life? No, not really.
There are just too many variables to say with any certainty how a small glass of wine or a bottle of beer will affect my health for better or worse over the course of my life. That’s why observational studies can’t be taken as Gospel truths.
The relationship between alcohol and cancer is a complicated one, and we’ve encouraged reporters to capture that nuance by exploring the limits of observational studies and crafting appropriately cautious messages about such research.
Health News Review’s post is a good one; head over there to read it in full for more information. They also include some links that will increase your awareness of what is or isn’t good healthcare reporting.
And on my Resources page, I have links to the websites I use for evidence-based healthcare.