Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds (Fiona Morgan) Every week in The Informed Health Consumer, we’ll be concluding with a discussion involving members of the educator team. The discussion will allow us to explore some of the key topics from each week in more detail. Joining me today is Doctor Andy Williams, who’s a senior lecturer in the School of Journalism, Media & Communication, and Keren Williamson, who is a senior lecturer in the School of Health Care Sciences. Welcome both. So this week we looked at the impact of external factors on health research. And we looked in particular detail at how health research is presented in the media. Now Andy, this is your area of particular expertise. (Dr.Andy Williams) Yeah. Yeah. That’s right. That’s right.
Skip to 1 minute and 11 seconds These days, journalists are becoming what’s commonly referred to as churnalists. OK? So we’re not having journalism as much as we used to. And we’re having churnalism. Churnalism is not about independently and rigorously reporting the news. It’s not an active process of fact-finding and fact-checking. It’s much more about regurgitating information wholesale as it comes into you– as it’s sent to you. Journalism and the news industry is in unprecedented decline. And it has been for the last two decades. OK? So that makes the news industry a lot weaker. And how does that represent itself?
Skip to 1 minute and 49 seconds It represents itself in broad terms, as fewer journalists working in the newsroom, doing the work of translating science and public consumption, doing the work sometimes of scrutinising science and holding them to account when they need to be the watchdog function of news. These things have been hit hard. So there are fewer journalists doing more work than ever before at a time when there are more press offices sending in more press releases than ever before. And the way that the news organisations have squared this circle is to just tell their journalists much more than ever before to copy and paste press releases from institutions.
Skip to 2 minutes and 25 seconds (Fiona Morgan) In the case study, when we looked at the report of the study on hydration and drivers, it was noticeable that the new story that we reported on actually virtually had the press release word for word. (Dr.Andy Williams) Absolutely. This happens in a huge amount of news stories these days. I’ve done studies myself, which show the majority of stories in the media, not about health and science specifically, but all the news. The majority of new stories that we read in the national and quality press come wholly or mainly from press releases.
Skip to 3 minutes and 2 seconds When you get cases like that, conflicts of interest, sometimes misinformation, or poorly communicated science by accident, ends up creeping in much more to the news that we read than is warranted. And we really, really need journalism to be much better resourced so that the reporters who translate science and medical research on our behalf are doing so with the resources that they need to do that accurately and properly, and to reflect on the evidence in a proper way. (Keren Williamson) And I think when people read the press releases they’ll see the source of that press release.
Skip to 3 minutes and 37 seconds And if it’s from a university, for example, they may well believe it without thinking what is the purpose, and what may be conflicts of interest behind that actual piece of research? All universities need funding. And sometimes the funding isn’t openly declared perhaps to reflect where the interest in the findings could come from. So I think it’s important for people to try to understand that sometimes there are what we call the front groups, that may be hidden. Or they may be there for a purpose that they don’t understand to promote something that the public may not be fully aware of. (Dr.Andy Williams) A lot of the claims that are made, in even university press release material, can be slightly exaggerated.
Skip to 4 minutes and 22 seconds And this can give people the wrong idea about, for example, the certainty with which scientists feel there’s an association between x and y or something like that. So it’s not just the really manipulative stuff you need to be aware of. You also need to be sceptical about the claims made by public bodies in science, communication, and health communication. (Fiona Morgan) There is so much money behind these things. For example, in the US between August 2013 and December 2014, the top 50 pharmaceutical company spenders paid doctors and teaching hospitals $2.37 billion for what were generally perceived to be promotion related activities. That’s a phenomenal amount of money.
Skip to 5 minutes and 16 seconds (Keren Williamson) And when you involve health professionals, and health, and medics, people tend to believe them. Particularly, when you’re looking in the UK, the US, everybody knows there’s a lot of money and a lot of private health care. But in the UK, if a doctor or a health professional is involved with any particular research, or promoting a product, or anything to do with health, then people tend to trust them. (Dr.Andy Williams) When unscrupulous or dishonest communications by companies, involving what we call front groups or astroturf groups, can play a role in that public debate.
Skip to 5 minutes and 52 seconds A front group is a group or an individual who a company with environmentally or damaging health implications can employ to launder their message, if you like. (Fiona Morgan) Well, we identified in our case studies the European Hydration Institute, funded by Coca-Cola, and the British Hydration Council, which essentially is made up of members of the bottled water industry. (Dr.Andy Williams) Who are you going to believe? Somebody from the European Hydration Institute sounds very worthy, sounds very official, sounds very good and evidence based, or somebody from Coca-Cola? Well, it’s a no brainer, isn’t it? So you can see why they do this. (Keren Williamson) And everybody thinks FOREST is just somebody talking about their rights and what people want to do.
Skip to 6 minutes and 45 seconds Where, if we again look at them, that’s a front group. They’re astroturfing, as we call it– Isn’t it– looking at the being funded by the tobacco industry. But many people would not be aware of that. And people would see them as their champions, really, for their rights to be able to do what they like. And these people are challenging the research. And they may think that these people are more educated or able to challenge the research than they are themselves. So they believe in what they say. So understanding where these organisations come from I think is key so the influence that their actual message can have on the public.
Skip to 7 minutes and 23 seconds (Dr.Andy Williams) Now luckily, because of new media and because of the great work that’s being done by a range of different organisations, many of whom we’ve provided links to in this course, it’s now a better time than ever to sniff out these conflicts of interest, to do your own research on the web just using Google and simple tactics, going to the right kind of resource, going to the right kind of web page, and checking out who funds these organisations. It now is a better time than ever to not be hoodwinked by the forces in these debates, who wish to carry them out in non-transparent, non-accountable ways, often against the public interest.
Discussion: who benefits?
Each week, we’ll be exploring key themes in greater depth with our panel of educators.
This week, we look in detail at the presentation of health research in the media and ask the critical question: “who benefits”?
How much of this were you aware of? Share your thoughts with other learners.