Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

media. music. feminism. food. city-dwelling. story-telling. and other things.

Problems With Health Journalism

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I’ve been accumulating personal and secondhand data for some sort of story on gendered mental disorder diagnoses, so it’s with particular annoyance that I come across this PsychCentral article, “Prevalence of Mental Disorders Vary by Gender.’ The authors note, in the second paragraph, that “researchers discovered women are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression, while men tend toward substance abuse or antisocial disorders.” Yet if the authors realize that the prevalence of this disorder or another is not the same as those “diagnosed with” said disorder, they fail to make the distinction in the headline or the rest of the article.

The ways adult hyperactive-type ADHD manifests itself are remarkably similar, at least by the diagnostic criteria and the way they are written about, to the symptoms of bipolar II (a less intense combination of highs and lows than bipolar I). Women are said to rarely possess hyperactive type ADHD (as opposed to the inattentive type), but they swell the ranks of bipolar II diagnoses—which is allegedly much, much less prevalent in men. And it’s sort of funny that Miami Dolphin’s Brandon Marshall wants to be the ‘face’ of borderline personality disorder, because for years it was said just to be a girl disease (symptoms include promiscuity and neediness). This sort of stuff both fascinates me and pisses me off; if anyone has any good research on these things to point me to, please do.

The more I cover health and nutrition for Blisstree (where I post at least four times daily, these days), the more frustrated I get with some health research and a lot of health reporting. It’s remarkable how little is done, in a lot of cases, beyond looking at the press release. I’m guilty of this sometimes (though if at all possible, I skim the study itself), but I write for a rapid-fire blog; you would think folks at websites for major publications/TV stations/etc. would go beyond that. [I’m not necessarily faulting the writers; for all I know, they all have to write a whole bunch of articles per day, too, and are only being asked for brief, neutral coverage]. But what’s worse is a) the veneer of objectivity, and b) the packaging/marketing. Some studies are crap. Reporters or editors have to know these are crap, at least most of the time, but they need things to write about and maybe everybody else is reporting it or maybe their paycheck/job/whatever is dependent on pageviews and so even if they report the truth of the stories, the headlines and deks or the blurbs scream out the most sensational aspect of the story, even if it’s not necessarily correct. Sometimes the articles will mention some fact that completely changes the meaning of the content as they’ve packaged it, and then just go on with the chosen narrative, contradictory fact notwithstanding.

The most egregious example of this in recent memory is this study reporting that it would cost a single American $380 more per year to eat healthy; for a family of four, this shot to $1,520. Headlines trumpeted things like “Is Eating Healthy a Luxury?” and “Most Americans Can’t Afford to Follow Dietary Guidelines.” What most glossed over was that the 1,000 adults surveyed were only from one affluent county in Washington, and researchers looked not at how families could add potassium, fiber, and other nutrients to their diets most cheaply, but based calculations on what these wealthy participants tended to already buy that contained those nutrients, or said they’d like to buy.

Even when what’s left out isn’t so extreme, there’s very little questioning of a study’s methods or conclusions in health reporting, as if the fact that it’s academic research alone makes it sacrosanct. I wonder if it’s more market factors of sociology/conventions of journalism that’s most at work here? Or is it impossible to distinguish? It is things like these that make me wish I were in grad school again, and could devote time to wonky media things like this. And then everyone could report on my research findings unquestionably …

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Written by Elizabeth

August 19, 2011 at 9:21 am

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