Observations Medicine and the Media

Health journalism: two clicks away from Britney Spears?

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b570 (Published 11 February 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b570
  1. Rebecca Coombes, associate editor, BMJ
  1. rcoombes{at}bmjgroup.com

    Can the health stories in the lay press maintain integrity when they are competing for attention with the antics of international celebrities? Rebecca Coombes reports from a conference

    Any doctor who has ever snorted in derision at some less than accurate media health story would have enjoyed the spectacle last week of a group of newspaper journalists who turned out to answer for their trade’s perceived sins at a national debate about standards in health reporting.

    “Does the media support or sabotage health?” asked the debate, sponsored by the Guardian newspaper, held during a Lancet conference in London. The event exposed the gulf between detail obsessed academics and time poor, space hungry, national newspaper journalists. As doctor, research fellow, and Guardian columnist, Ben Goldacre bemoaned the Daily Mail for its insistence on “dividing all the inanimate objects in the world into those which can cause or cure cancer,” the professional journalists became exasperated with him for seeing the media as a monolithic organisation.

    Referring to what is seen as the media’s uncritical acceptance of Andrew Wakefield’s now notorious 1998 Lancet paper, which launched the claims of the link between autism and the combined vaccination for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), the Guardian’s health editor, Sarah Boseley, said to Goldacre, …

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