Regular readers of this blog will be aware that misrepresentative reporting of health issues is one of our major bugbears. Unfortunately the phenomenon is so widespread in British newspapers that it is impossible for us to comment on every single example.
However, the article on page 9 of today’s Daily Mail illustrates perfectly how the media, and in particular the press, distorts scientific reviews and studies to generate scare headlines.
The story reports a small review into reduced salt consumption which found no evidence that limited cuts in salt intake reduced the risk of premature death or developing heart disease.
The researchers behind this review conceded it was not large enough to show any benefits to health and the review leader admitted that because the reduction in salt was only moderate “the effect on blood pressure and heart disease was not large”.
Despite these caveats, the Mail ran the story under the damaging headline: Cutting back on salt ‘does not make you healthier’. The online version raised the spectre of the nanny state with the added: (despite nanny state warnings).
Compare this with the online version published by Reuters press agency which adopts the more measured: Review raises questions over benefits of cutting salt.
The Mail’s opening paragraph tells readers: “Eating less salt will not prevent heart attacks, strokes or early death, according to a major study.”
This is despite the fact that the review, which looked at seven studies involving 6,489 participants, can not be classified as a “major study”. It is not until the seventh paragraph that criticism of the “findings” are aired, although perhaps criticism of the Mail’s presentation of the study would be more appropriate.
This criticism is further explained later in the story and the article contains a background to the health risks associated with salt consumption. But the real damage has already been done with the headline and the opening half-dozen paragraphs.
By putting part of the headline in quote marks, the newspaper is seeking to show that the claim is not the paper’s own. But to whom should it be attributed? Certainly review leader Rod Taylor, of Exeter University, does not make such a claim and acknowledges the limited insight the research offers into salt consumption, suggesting larger studies are necessary.
Perhaps the most pertinent part of the Mail story is a quote from Katherine Jenner, of Consensus Action on Salt and Health, who, in one of the closing paragraphs, is reported as saying: “This is a completely inappropriate conclusion, given the strong evidence and the overwhelming public health consensus that salt raises blood pressure which leads to cardiovascular disease.”
By adding this kind of comment the newspaper is aiming to add balance to the article, but this balance is not reflected in the headline.
So why does it matter what’s printed on an inside page of ‘tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper’. Well, the Mail is Britain’s second most-read daily newspaper and it’s online version is threatening to overtake the New York Times as the world’s most popular English-language newspaper site.
So the headlines it displays can have a huge impact on people’s perceptions of health. In particular, it adds to the all-to-common perception that “scientists are always changing their minds” and that there are no constant messages on health.
But, as World Cancer Research Fund has often stated, the scientific advice as it relates to cancer (including that on salt) has been the same for many years. It is newspapers’ treatment of health issues that is at fault in terms of the public opinion. As Ben Goldacre pointed out in the Guardian recently, the majority of health stories in British newspapers are backed up by insufficient scientific evidence.
Unfortunately, the papers show no signs of correcting this and as long as shock-value headlines are more important to editors than providing their readers with valuable facts on health then the current situation will continue.