about media doctor
The primary aim of the Media Doctor project is to improve standards of journalism as they apply to specific topic media coverage of new medical drugs and treatments. Media Doctor will review current news items about medical treatments, assess their quality using a standardised rating scale and present reviews of good and bad examples of reports on a specially designed website. It is anticipated that independent and objective critiques will improve journalistic practices in reporting new medications and treatments.
- Ensure that, when possible, all important information associated with new treatments are reported, including benefits, harms, costs, adverse effects, availability, and conflict of interest.
- Establish the interest and usefulness in providing alerts to GPs on media coverage of new treatments.
- Establish a website called Media Doctor to provide feedback to journalists about the quality of their news stories.
- Evaluate the impact of Media Doctor on the quality of reports on new medical treatments in the lay press using time series analysis of serial scores achieved by individual media outlets.
- To investigate the international potential for such a process, especially in developing countries.
First Line of Information
The lay press plays a crucial role in the communicating health messages and notifying the public about research findings and new treatments. Members of the public often base their opinions on what they have read or heard in the press, and subsequently, press cuttings are presented to doctors and become the basis of discussions about treatment decisions. Doctors themselves may hear first about developments through the lay press (1,2,3,4,5).
A GP Tool
A secondary aim is for Media Doctor to act as a GP service in providing email alerts to relevant, current media articles that patients may approach them about. We believe the impact on the media would be far greater when applied in developing countries.
Current Reporting Practices
In general, the coverage of new medical treatments in the lay press is regarded as poor and is prone to exaggeration of facts in order to create unnecessary sensationalism (1,3,4,5). Promoters of new therapies employ professional public relations companies to prepare press releases that over-emphasise the benefits and minimise the potential harms of new products. These press releases often form the basis for stories in the lay press and are sometimes used directly without attribution. Advocates for treatments use the media to create pressure from the community to have them approved and funded and often do not take account of data on comparative efficacy and cost effectiveness. Examples of this include the opiate antagonist naltrexone and sildenafl for erectile dysfunction (6).
There is evidence in other professional areas that timely feedback on performance can improve practice standards (7). Therefore, audits of quality in health reporting in the lay press and feedback of these may improve the informative value of media stories.
In many countries, direct to consumer advertising activities are a large and very important part of the marketing strategy of the pharmaceutical industry (8,9). In developing countries, there is limited government control of advertising content and comparatively low levels of journalistic training. There is evidence that the activities of drug companies are less well controlled in developing countries and therefore these is a greater potential for the media to be used inappropriately to influence public knowledge.
Outcomes and Significance
The main outcome will be an objective evaluation of the quality of current health reporting in the lay press and a mechanism by which to inform journalists and media organisations on the quality of their stories with the view to improvement.
With increasing pressure on healthcare funding, it is important that the lay press adopts a neutral position on the value of new expensive medical treatments, and is able to provide accurate and unbiased information to the public. It is hoped this site will have a positive influence on journalists, their editors and executive producers, and that it may change the internal culture of the media organisation.
A major and sustained improvement in reporting standards will probably require changes to the culture of media companies, improved education of young journalists, and a change in the behaviour of drug companies and researchers. What we have outlined here is a 'minimal' intervention, but if it works it will be sustainable and cost-effective and could be used to educate the industry, health professionals and the public.
Developing Media Doctor will assess the impact of the system on the western media. However we feel this impact could be even greater if applied in developing countries. Increasingly news in developing countries is available online, making it easier to retrieve medical news stories. The Media Doctor team is interested in working with partners to extend the appraisal of medical news stories to other countries.
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