Watch out for these hyped-up health reports

By Charlie Williams
Published June 22, 2020

Key Takeaways

The news cycle never moves faster than when a pandemic engulfs the globe and uncertainty seems to lurk around every corner. That can be a good thing—in times like these, staying on top of the latest information can mean the difference between relative safety and serious danger.

But that’s only the case when news outlets and the sources they depend on tell the truth (which, in the current climate, is not immune to becoming politicized, weaponized, and interpreted in a litany of alarming ways). In the race to be the first to scoop the next big health story, many news outlets are foregoing due diligence and making critical reporting errors in the process—some of which end up getting multiplied and shared ad infinitum, despite their dubious origins.

While much of the responsibility for these errors rests with the news outlets who distribute them, the roots of misinformation run much deeper, and are tied up in a complex web that involves a wide cast of characters, including national leaders, scientists, bots and trolls, and the populace at large, whose voices have never been louder thanks to social media.

The bottom line? The downstream effects of health misinformation can be devastating. Here are 7 times we saw that devastation in action.

Hyped-up hydroxychloroquine

In mid-March—just days after the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic and it became clear that the United States was entering the beginning of a steep upward slope in infections and deaths—the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine began making headlines across the nation.

As so many misleading stories do, this one started on social media, in the form of a tweet from Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has 36 million followers. Within hours, news stations and several high-profile pundits began touting the medication’s unproven benefits in treating coronavirus. None of them, including Musk, were doctors.

On March 17, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a leading member of the White House coronavirus task force, appeared on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News TV show to temper the excitement, saying “We have to be careful, Laura, that we don’t assume something works based on an anecdotal report that’s not controlled…There’s a lot of buzz out there on the internet, on the social media about that. We need to look at it in a scientific way.”

As it turns out, the “scientific way” wasn’t nearly as exciting as many pundits would’ve liked their audiences to believe. Much of the early hype was based on a preliminary report, published in late February, that only included 100 patients in China. By April 24, a group of physicians and editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial in JAMA Network Open urging physicians to practice caution when using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, because available evidence was discouraging and uncovered many disconcerting side effects.

There should be “some degree of skepticism toward the enthusiastic claims about chloroquine [that should] perhaps serve to curb the exuberant use,” they wrote. “For the time being, prudent clinicians should discuss with patients and their families, when feasible, the potential risks of this drug and the uncertain benefits before initiating it.”

On June 15, the FDA revoked its earlier “emergency use authorization” for the drugs’ use in COVID-19 patients. Based on the disappointing results of a large randomized controlled clinical trial and other studies, “it is no longer reasonable to believe that oral formulations of HCQ [hydroxychloroquine] and CQ [chloroquine] may be effective in treating COVID-19, nor is it reasonable to believe that the known and potential benefits of these products outweigh their known and potential risks,” the FDA stated.

Meanwhile, The New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet retracted two studies: one on hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine and the other on the effects of blood pressure drugs. Both studies were based on large, questionable datasets that the study authors could not verify.

Playing down the pandemic’s dangers

As we enter the fourth month since the uncontrolled cross-continental outbreaks have been officially recognized as a pandemic, we’re afforded some hindsight that allows us to measure where news organizations have been transparent amid the chaos and where they haven’t.

Fox News has come under considerable scrutiny for favoring pundits who downplayed the dangers of the pandemic, which has killed more than 120,000 Americans since March.

The nonprofit group Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics filed a lawsuit against the news organization on April 2, alleging Fox’s dissemination of false information posed a threat to public health, and singling out segment hosts Sean Hannity and Trish Regan for amplifying the falsehood that the virus is a hoax and a conspiracy, and that it’s “no more dangerous than the common flu.”

On the same day that suit was filed, a group of 74 journalism professors and journalists wrote an open letter to Fox News owners Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, accusing the network of regularly subjecting its viewers to misinformation about COVID-19 and its harms.

Fox News, for its part, denied that its hosts had downplayed the pandemic and claimed that the suit should be thrown out because “the First Amendment does not permit censoring this type of speech.” And while they seem to be in the hottest seat, they certainly are not the only news station amplifying falsehoods.

In any case, the suit was thrown out by a Seattle judge in late May.

Overhyped cancer drugs

Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the United States, after heart disease. It killed an estimated 600,000 Americans in 2018. It’s rare to find someone who doesn’t have a close friend or family member whose life has been upended by the disease.

As a society, we’re desperate to find a way to beat cancer—and news organizations know it. As new, experimental drugs make their way through the development pipeline, it’s not uncommon for them to be heralded as “game-changing,” “revolutionary,” “breakthrough,” and “transformative,” among other things. But these claims rarely reflect reality.

In one study on these types of claims, researchers found that half of the cancer drugs that news articles had labeled with a hyped-up claim had not received approval from the FDA. Some drugs were tied to superlative claims even though the article included no mentions of clinical data. Many of the claims in the study were about drugs that were tied to therapeutic cancer vaccines, which tend to have low response rates, as well as drugs that had not yet shown survival benefits, and drugs that included no human data.

Most new cancer drugs afford only modest benefits, like extending survival by a few weeks or months. Although all improvements are welcome, the majority of cancer drug developments fail to match up to the “game-changing” superlative claims that tend to describe them.

Big Pharma ‘hiding the cure for cancer’

One of the most engaged-with health stories on social media in recent years was an article published in April 2019 with an incendiary headline that told a suspicious tale: “Cancer industry not looking for a cure; they’re too busy making money.”

The article was initially published on the web platform Natural News, a widely discredited news site that frequently promotes pseudoscience and unsubstantiated health claims, and whose Facebook page was banned by the social media platform for using misleading and inaccurate information to attract engagement.

The article, which has gained more than 3.3 million views since it was published, included several medical conspiracies, including one positing that “Big Pharma,” a nebulous group including doctors and federal health organizations, had already found the cure for cancer, but was hiding it.

Unfortunately for patients, there is no hidden cure for cancer, argues anonymous endocrinologist and author Skeptical Raptor: “Cancer treatments are not developed in secret. There are no classified laboratories hidden under the Antarctic ice. The process for drug development is long, arduous, and mostly a failure. It requires collaboration between a large number of scientists from the government, academia, and Big Pharma. Papers would be published in public, easily-accessed peer-reviewed journals. There would be a number of presentations at huge cancer meetings. Everyone would know about this imaginary ‘cure.’”

The anti-vax movement

Opposition to vaccines has existed for as long as the vaccines themselves. But the anti-vaccination movement began to take its current form around the turn of the 21st century, when parents started citing a 1998 study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and colleagues. Dr. Wakefield’s hypothesis was that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine caused a series of events that led to autism. Media outlets and magazines opened their pages to entertain the question: Do vaccines cause autism? Just giving the question air time gave it a modicum of credibility. 

Four years later, as the hype was growing—fueled by private online discussion boards and blogs—Dr. Wakefield and colleagues published a second paper, in which they tested intestinal biopsy samples for the presence of measles virus from children with and without autism. They found that 75 of 91 children with autism were found to have measles virus in their biopsy tissue, compared with just 5 of 70 who didn’t have autism.

On the surface, the findings can appear convincing. But both of these papers are the product of shoddy science and have been debunked repeatedly since their publication. The Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals, retracted Dr. Wakefield’s studies in 2010, citing poor scientific methodology and poor ethical standards, including receiving funding from lawyers who were acting for parents involved in lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers.

Most mainstream news publications promptly hopped off the anti-vax train as scientific consensus grew that vaccines are safe. Still, that didn’t thwart the continued growth of the anti-vax movement, which remains strong today despite overwhelming scientific evidence.

Essential oils

A quick internet search of the term “essential oils” returns results that seem to tout their benefits for better health. It’s not just niche publications covering the purported (and scientifically unsupported) benefits of essential oils—big-name players like NBC News and The New York Times can be found among the search results, mixed between market reports that show the industry growing by 7% in the next 7 years.

This is despite the fact that there is little evidence to support the belief that essential oils can help users achieve better health. A systematic review of essential oils for aromatherapy published in 2000 found that the effects of aromatherapy are probably not strong enough for it to be considered a viable treatment for anxiety symptoms. Moreover, the hypothesis that essential oils can be effective for any indication is not supported by the findings of rigorous clinical trials, the authors noted.

Fundamental flaws in media health coverage

Writing a news story about a local charity event is a whole lot easier than demystifying clinical data for a lay audience—that’s why it’s important that healthcare reporters reach out to scientists and physicians and include those voices in stories they write about new developments in healthcare and medicine.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to happen all that often. In an analysis of global media coverage of research studies published in high-impact general and internal medicine journals in 2013, researchers found that only 1 in 6 media reports included comments from people who were independent of the study investigators. One in 4 of the independent commenters lacked relevant expertise, and 1 in 3 had financial conflicts of interest, most of which were not reported in the news.

This data suggests many healthcare reporters might be unaware of, or ignoring, the key principles for covering health and medical news promoted by the Association of Health Care Journalists, which includes investigating and reporting potential conflicts of interest and seeking out independent experts to scrutinize claims and evaluate the quality of research.

Information vs misinformation

The pace that news breaks seems to be speeding up exponentially, but the responsibility to fact-check sources and take a measured look at news stories is increasingly falling on the reader. And that responsibility is a big one, especially during a pandemic where sickness is never far away.

For those looking to stay safe and keep their eyes on thoroughly vetted information, practice basic scrutiny with these steps from

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