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Study: Local TV news covers health a lot, but not always well

Local television newscasts, where most Americans get most of their news, are packed with medical stories and health information. But the first-ever national study of that coverage finds many problems with it, and sees room for improvement by both TV stations and the health experts whose work fills the news.

In the March issue of the American Journal of Managed Care, researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin-Madison report results from an in-depth analysis of health coverage on local TV newscasts from across the country.

In all, health and medical stories comprised 11 percent of the news portion of late-evening newscasts in the one-month period studied, with 1,799 such stories carried on 2,795 broadcasts captured from the representative sample of 122 stations in the nation's top 50 media markets.

The average story was 33 seconds long, and most did not give specifics about the source of the information presented. Items about specific diseases tended not to contain recommendations for viewers, or information about how common the disease was -- which could help put the news into perspective with other health issues.

But most disturbing, the study's authors say, were the egregious errors contained in a small minority of studies -- errors that could have led to serious consequences.

For instance, a story that aired on several stations reported on lemon juice's effect on sperm and speculated about, or presented as fact, the use of lemon juice as an effective contraceptive, and its potential effect on preventing sexual transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Despite the fact that the study was done in a research lab, nearly all the stories failed to mention that it had not involved humans. Even more alarming, one of the stations misinterpreted the study altogether and stated that lemon juice may be a substitute for "costly" HIV medications.

"Egregious errors such as these can actual
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Contact: Kara Gavin
kegavin@umich.edu
734-764-2220
University of Michigan Health System
8-Mar-2006


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