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It’s not that the media misrepresents you by mistake – they misrepresent you quite deliberately

November 9th, 2008

Dr Petra

In this week’s Bad Science Column Ben Goldacre reports on an all too familiar case of media misrepresentation.

He describes the case of Jackie Dewhurst who spoke to Woman’s Own magazine in the hope of raising awareness about Addison’s disease. Woman’s Own managed to misrepresent Ms Dewhurst and her condition, so Ms Dewhurst made a formal representation to the Press Complaints Commission (who, predictably, did fairly little to help the complainant). Ben discusses the problem of media reporting of health issues, and shares Ms Dewhurst’s concern that even if she provided inaccurate information on her health to a journalist (which she denies doing) surely it was the responsibility of the magazine to check that information before going to press. That way, even if Ms Dewhurst had said something wrong, it could have been spotted and rectified before publication.

Of course any responsible publication should do just that, and yet there are countless examples where they obviously don’t. I can only report on the media coverage of sex/relationships issues that I pay close attention to, and in this area there’s definitely a major concern over misunderstanding genuine health issues (for example STIs) while misinterpreting other ‘health’ stories.

The result is people are not given clear and accurate instruction on safer sex, what STIs are and their prevalence, and how to manage your sexual health. Accurate information on contraceptive choices and availability is not widely shared within the media. Information on relationships rights, sexuality, sex during and after childbirth and countless other areas are either noticeable by their absence or, where mentioned, are described in such coy ways as to make them useless.

But if you want to know about sex addiction, female sexual dysfunction, dating toxins, singleton syndrome or a whole host of other invented or misunderstood conditions then the media is happy to service you with an endless discussion of those. They’re also more than happy to promote drugs or herbal products that either do not yet exist for public consumption (e.g. the male pill or several products for female desire problems) or have been discontinued when trials showed they were unsafe for public use (e.g. anti-depressants as a cure for premature ejaculation, or nasal spray libido enhancers).

It would be worrying enough if Ms Dewhurst’s case was a one-off problem with a magazine aimed at an older female audience. Sadly this kind of problem reporting is endemic in the media. In the past year I have told journalists that sex addiction is not the epidemic they believe it to be, and concept is hotly disputed. I have told them that dating toxins do not exist, nor does singleton syndrome. I have also drawn attention to the way women’s (and men’s) sexual behaviour is being medicalised so those who do not feel much like sex or have problems with orgasm are being relabeled as ‘dysfunctional’ – and there are a host of commercial and pharmaceutical companies standing by to benefit from this reclassification. I have made it clear certain drugs or herbal products are either not ready or not safe for public use.

On each of the many occasions when I have been asked about these topics I have recommended journalists seek second and third opinions. I have pointed them to other reputable and qualified experts and sources of data that highlight the problems with these concepts. And I have given them new (and I believe better) story angles to work with. I have also volunteered to talk to their editors to clarify the situation.

And pretty much on every occasion I’ve been either met with indifference, or told that although I’m probably right there’s not much the journalist can do because they’re already commissioned to write from a particular angle and can’t change it. Or I’m told that I am wrong.

In the case of the ‘dating toxins’ story for example the journalist writing it was convinced these toxins existed because they’d been measured by a doctor using a questionnaire. I was unable to change her view that a. you can’t measure toxins via a questionnaire and b. it doesn’t matter who is doing the measuring if what they’re measuring can’t be measured using a questionnaire! The journalist had spoken to the doctor and said they were very nice. Which further added to their credibility. I obviously wasn’t being ‘very nice’ as I was raising lots of difficult questions. Perhaps that was their reason for ignoring my input.

But even in this case, or in any of the others I’ve been involved with, surely – as Ms Dewhurst argues – someone at the newspaper should be checking what is written? I do my bit and explain problems, and usually I’m ignored. But you would expect there to be an additional level of quality control so even if experts are sidelined somebody else could double check what is being reported and ensure accuracy.

The reason this is happening can be blamed on editors being inflexible over story angles; journalists working on tight deadlines and feeling powerless to challenge a story angle they’ve been given; a lack of skills by journalists to understand social or health issues and evidence; and (in the case of sex stories) no incentive to take the area seriously and therefore no reason to even consider stories should be checked.

That’s why I’m glad Ben has brought Ms Dewhurst’s story to the public’s attention – although I’m sorry she was misrepresented so badly. The public are currently under the impression that the reports they read on health and social topics are thoroughly researched, fair, balanced and above all checked for accuracy. Sadly this is the exception rather than the rule.

We need to keep highlighting this poor practice, try and identify why such sloppy journalism is allowed to thrive, and educate and hold to task editors who don’t follow good journalism standards. Fortunately through blogs and alternative areas of reporting we can highlight where people or issues have been misreported, and also make examples of bad practice. That way the public will begin to see stories have been misrepresented – but they can also see this process happens more often deliberately than by mistake.

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