Making Sense of Women’s Health News Reports

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What do I need to know about health news in the media?

Headlines are written to get your attention. You may react with emotion to headlines about "medical breakthroughs". You might be anxious that you are somehow "at risk". It may also seem confusing because sometimes news stories seem to contradict one another. One says something is good for you, and another says that it is bad for you.

Media professionals may seem trustworthy because they claim to report "scientific research". But reporters may not understand everything in the study or have the time to research and report on all aspects of complex study findings. News reports rarely point out the strengths and weaknesses of a study. News reports also tend to focus only on one study at a time. It is important to understand how new results fit with the results of other studies done on the same topic.

Some media outlets may also have ties to corporate interests that may influence what is reported. For example, some things may be over-reported while others may never get in the news.

What is the message?

A common device used in some forms of reporting is to use a dramatic quote taken out of context. What is the quote or statement's relationship to the study findings? Why is it used in the story? Is it backed up by reliable facts? Is the report playing upon social stereotypes like the importance of looking young to encourage buying drugs or taking expensive tests?

Who provides the report?

Try to figure out why the report reached the media. Who funded the work? This information may help you find a possible bias in a study's outcome. Were researchers funded by or associated with, for instance, tobacco or drug companies? Did the researchers go to the media? Is this a way to promote themselves to get more funding?

Think about whether you are getting all sides of the story. Are other experts who are not directly involved in the study quoted in the media report? Their comments and observations will often help you put the research results in perspective.

Does the report look trustworthy?

  • What stage is the research at? Is the report about early findings or final conclusions?
  • Has the study been reviewed by other professionals and published in a reputable journal?
  • Is this the only study available about the topic? It usually takes many studies and years of research before definite conclusions can be drawn.

What kind of evidence is the report based upon?

What if I am worried about the media report?

Focus on what is important for you and your own unique situation. Just because a health issue is in the media doesn't mean that it definitely applies to you. You may have a different situation than the people in the news report or other things might be more important to you.

Here are some ways you can get more information:

  • A health information librarian or medical librarian can help you find the original research article. Sometimes the summary at the beginning of the article will give you enough information to help you assess the news report. Ask for other articles on the same subject to provide balance.
  • Check out the Canadian Women's Health Network (http://www.cwhn.ca ) or other trustworthy women's health websites to find more information or commentary about the news report.
  • Talk with your doctor or another health professional about the news report or study findings.

Where can I go for more information?