Evaluating media coverage of psychiatric and addiction drugs
Reprinted from the "Medications" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (2), pp. 23-24
Today we’re turning to a broader range of media sources than ever before for information. About 67% of Canadians tune into television news, and 42% read a newspaper on a daily basis.1
Studies on new medical treatments and medications, headlines announcing breakthrough discoveries, medical horror stories, and everything in between are regularly featured in the news. Because we so often turn to mass media first for news, there is huge potential for it to influence our attitudes and behaviours about health and medicine.2
Because health news is commonly covered in the mass media, it is important to be media literate—to ask why and how medical stories are covered. When we are able to separate facts from hype in the news, we can be more informed consumers.
It’s also important to keep in mind that, whether we see it on television or read it in the newspaper, news coverage rarely reports on a medical issue in a balanced way. A study published in 2003 found that Canadian newspapers generally stress either the risks or the benefits of a medication instead of discussing both.2 This creates a black-and-white view, which appears much simpler and more one-sided than it should be. Important points—such as other medications and therapies used to treat the same condition, or consumer characteristics such as age, sex and health—are often left out.3
There are many reasons for this unbalanced perspective. Space in the news—either on the printed page, or in time for television—is limited. Journalists often don’t have enough time to research a topic completely. There is also pressure to “sell” news by presenting sensational stories.
In addition, most media outlets are co-owned by the same parent corporation, which means that corporate owners’ agendas and perspectives can often greatly influence the slant in which stories are presented. And the same news story is often seen and heard via many media outlets, because these outlets have purchased the story from a news service. Such a wide distribution of the same content gives the story an impression of widespread authority.
The bad news
Because psychiatric medications are the second most dispensed of all medications,4 and because there can still be debate surrounding their use,5 stories on psychiatric medications often make their way into the news. And often, in media, the negative effects of medications are made to sound far more common than they actually are.
In June 2004, a series of stories by journalist Sharon Kirkey ran in eight major Canadian newspapers, all owned by CanWest MediaWorks Inc . The stories ran under alarming headlines such as Are Antidepressants Endangering Our Children?6 and A Six-year-old Filled with Rage.7 These articles reported, in a very grim way, on prescribing SSRIs to children with depression and anxiety disorders. They focused on reports of increased suicidal thinking , as well as on rare cases of extremely aggressive behaviour allegedly brought on by the medication.
Reports such as Kirkey’s can encourage negative social attitudes towards psychiatric medications and those who use them. For example, parents may be less willing to consider psychiatric medications for their kids after reading a story like Kirkey’s, or youth already on medication may not want to continue taking their medication or may feel ashamed for taking it.
Studies have shown that the public is not as accepting of medication used for mental disorders as it is of medication used for physical disorders, even though evidence proves that both are equally effective in treating illness.5,8 This applies to medications for addiction as well; for example, studies have proven that methadone maintenance is an effective way of treating heroine dependency.9 Yet, through unbalanced reports in the media, we tend to hear more about the few people with complex problems who abuse methadone.
In February 2003, a story titled Methadone, Once the Way Out, Suddenly Grows As a Killer Drug, written by Pam Belluck, ran in the New York Times. The article cited a large jump throughout the United States, seemingly overnight, in the number of methadone overdoses leading to death. Articles like this lead to social stigma toward methadone users by creating the impression that they are violent or have nothing to contribute to society because they are completely fixated on their addiction. This also sparks debates about the safety of the drug.9
The good news
There are also some upsides to medical reporting in the media. Press reports warning the public about the negative effects of certain medications have the power to push consumers toward safer and more appropriate medication options. They can also effectively reach a broad public to advise about drug recalls.
Accurate reporting can also be useful in linking the mass readership with information about research evidence and practice. Without resorting to sensationalism to grab readers’ attention, the popular media can simplify complex scientific research into terms we can all understand..
The wisdom to know the difference
Is an online project that attempts to improve media coverage of medications. It originated in Australia and has spread to several countries, including Canada. On the website, medical stories found in major newspapers are reviewed and rated on their reliability, using a five-stars rating system. The ratings are based on an in-depth list of criteria, depending on story type, such as harm stories, health scare reports and stories about access. These criteria provide excellent guidelines for news readers to assess stories, offering a variety of relevant questions to ask about a particular report on medications.
So what is a consumer to do? Arm yourself with information. Here are some steps to help you get a balanced view of medications in the news:
Get a second opinion from reputable, up-to-date health information sources online such as Health Canada’s website (www.hc-sc.gc.ca).
Determine whether the news report mentions who raised the story in the first place. A journal press release, a research firm or an advocacy group can all slant the issue in different ways to reflect their respective interests.
Evaluate the balance and scope of the topic presented. Are all sides of the debate covered, or is something left out?
Be wary of article length. A really short story will simplify information, while a longer report may present a more balanced view on a study. Keep in mind, however, that a long investigative piece may also try to sway you toward its own opinion.
Try to find several pieces from different sources and different media outlets/companies.
Watch for channels and publications that are co-owned and may be sharing the same story. The Canadian Newspaper Association provides a comprehensive list of the nation’s newspaper ownership (www.cna-acj.ca); go to the blue menu, click on “Ultimate Guide” and then click on “Ownership” in the drop-down menu choices).
Consider the questions a story addresses. Is anything important not brought up?
Check out Media Awareness Network (www.media-awareness.ca) or other media literacy sites that offer resources and tips on good questions to ask about any media story.
Most importantly, if you see something in the media that worries you about a medicine you are taking, do not stop taking it without consulting your doctor. Your pharmacist is also a good source for new medication information and drug warnings. But always discuss your concerns with your doctor, who can help you make informed medication choices.
About the author
Donna is completing her undergraduate degree in Communication at Simon Fraser University. She is currently on a co-op term at Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division.
Canadian Media Research Consortium. (2004). Report card on Canadian news media: Examining credibility in Canadian journalism, a national study of public attitudes about news. www.journalism.ubc.ca/research.html.
Cassels, A. (2007). The media-medicine mix: Quality concerns in medical reporting. Open Medicine, 1(1), 52-54.
Cassels, A., Hughes, M.A., Cole, C. et al. (2003). Drugs in the news: How well do Canadian newspapers report the good, the bad and the ugly of new prescription drugs? Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. www.policyalternatives.ca/documents/BC_Office_Pubs/drugs_in_news.pdf.
IMS Health. (2007). Pharmaceutical trends: Top 10 dispensed therapeutic classes in Canada, 2006 (chart). www.imshealth.com/vgn/images/portal/cit_40000873/51/50/79014580Trends02_En_07.pdf.
Angermeyer, M.C., Breier, P., Dietrich, S. et al. (2005). Public attitudes toward psychiatric treatment: An international comparison. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 40(11), 855-864.
Kirkey, S.(2004, June 12). Growing use of antipsychotics causes alarm [article in the series, Warning: Are antidepressants endangering our children?]. The Vancouver Sun.
Kirkey, S.(2004, June 10). A six-year-old filled with rage. Edmonton Journal.
Jorm, A.F., Mackinnon, A., Christensen, H. et al. (2005). Structure of beliefs about the helpfulness of interventions for depression and schizophrenia: Results from a national survey of the Australian public. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 40(11), 877-883.
Brands, B. & Marsh, D.C. (1997). Methadone maintenance treatment: A Canadian perspective. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 157(4), 399-401. www.cmaj.ca/cgi/reprint/157/4/399.pdf.