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TV health news comes up short

Times Staff Writer

Lemon juice is a good contraceptive. Exercise may cause cancer. And -- this just in! -- duct tape cures warts.

Local television stations often add health reports to their usual coverage of crime, sports and weather, but the information they dispense is not all that useful, according to a new study. Sometimes it’s flat-out wrong.

In the first survey of health information in local television news, researchers found that about 40% of broadcasts in the top 50 markets around the country, including Los Angeles, aired at least one medical story in each news broadcast. But the median airtime for these stories was a slim 33 seconds.

The study also found that most of the health segments lacked important context, such as the prevalence rates for a disease or condition.

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And in about 2% of the health reports, which were all taped during October 2002, the information was dangerously skewed, said Dr. James M. Pribble, an emergency physician at the University of Michigan Hospital and lead author of the study, which he conducted with colleagues at the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Four broadcasts, for example, suggested that lemon juice could be used as a contraceptive or prevent HIV transmission, even though the original study, by a scientist at the University of Melbourne, was only conducted in a test tube.

Only one of the broadcasts mentioned that human tests had not been conducted.

Even more harmful, Pribble said, was the suggestion by one news segment that lemon juice could be a substitute for “costly HIV” medications.

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“We just want people to understand that you need to take TV news with a grain of salt,” Pribble said.

Pribble and his team chose to examine local television news for health information because previous studies have shown that most Americans’ main source of information is local television news.

For their study, which was published last week in the American Journal of Managed Care, researchers reviewed 2,795 of the top-rated news broadcasts taken from the 50 metropolitan areas.

Among the 1,799 health stories that were aired during those broadcasts, the researchers found 27% included an interview with a health professional and 26% included specific recommendations for how to prevent or ameliorate a medical condition. Only 12% of the reports mentioned the prevalence of a disease, which is important in assessing the level of risk a disease presents.

Another major disappointment, said Pribble, was the choice of topics.

Though it was reasonable that breast cancer was the single most common topic because it is a significant cause of illness and death in America, he said, it was not appropriate that the second most common topic was West Nile virus.

Pribble said he understood the appetite for information about West Nile in October 2002 because then it was still a relatively unfamiliar disease. But he thought the disease was not placed in perspective. The danger of developing a severe disease from contracting West Nile is about 1%, a fact which was not mentioned in any health segment, he said.

There were also 23 reports on the effectiveness of duct tape in removing warts based on a study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. This issue, said Pribble, was trivial compared to more serious and widespread problems such as heart disease and obesity.

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Dr. Jonathan Fielding, public health director for Los Angeles County, said the study reminded viewers they should double-check TV information with websites for local public health agencies and other reliable sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. People can also consult with their personal physicians.

“Generally speaking, the stations in Los Angeles do a credible job, but I don’t think that they should be the only source of information,” he said.

Marty Kaplan, an associate dean at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication, saw the study as a call for stations to devote more time to health reporting and improve its accuracy.

“Thirty-three seconds is barely enough time to clear your throat, let alone to explain a public health issue and give people accurate advice,” he said.

But, he added, “It’s certainly enough time to scare you.”


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