As someone keen to rise in the field of medical journalism, I am constantly scanning news stories for the latest in medicine, health, science and technology. However, too often I come across bizarre headlines and over time I have learnt to pick the reliable ones from the unreliable ones. What struck me is that there seems to be two types of journalist: one with good intentions, and one that is clearly out to manipulate stories to meet their own ends. Both aim to engage the public but the ways in which some journalists do cannot be justified. Surely the qualified journalists and scientists who represent the world of science are required to do so correctly, and truthfully? While scientists are motivated to represent their results in the best possible light, they also face the increasing pressure put upon them to achieve the best outcomes, so that some are prone to exaggerate, cut information and jump guns in order to portray what their funders and the public want.
While good-willed journalists wait patiently for reports to be released from the labs and for the embargoes to lift, there are those who are simply trained to exaggerate their stories in order to make profit and impress the higher-ups, without a care for the people who hang on to their every word of promise and assertion. They take full advantage of the lenient laws regarding content in the media, and once out there it’s difficult to retract any story that does cause damage. Faith is raised in those who grasp upon any sign of hope, faith in the only people that have the power to show it to them, and once the deception is realised, seeing that the real breakthroughs are yet to come – the trust is lost and the emotional damage is done.
There’s nothing wrong with an attractive title, but headlines such as ‘Finally! A Cure for HIV!’, ‘HIV Cure For All’ or ‘Doctor Discovers Miracle Cure’ all sway from the truth because they twist the results of the latest scientific study to a story more appealing, and more profit-making. Most of the headlines in the media are harmless to an extent, but these particular types of headlines are diminishing for struggling patients that look to any form of hope for the future and improvement to their health. So why on earth is the media still getting away with it? Especially as they’re reporting from the mouths of the people that terminally ill patients are trusting with their lives.
I recently read Dr Steve Taylor’s blogs on http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dr-steve-taylor/ which include the noteworthy entries ‘How HIV Stigma Kills’ and ‘Stigma, Complacency and Ignorance in the Fight Against HIV’. They provide insight into the prejudice that still exists, and the dangerous attitudes of those who aren’t afraid of catching HIV because the treatments are available. Headlines that suggest a cure that’s “free for all” only serve to consolidate this complacency.
In his latest blog, titled ‘A Cure for HIV: Really?’ Taylor comments on the International AIDS Society Conference held in Malaysia early July. A scientific study was presented at the conference, involving three HIV positive patients from Boston. Although one patient died during the study, the other two had their blood tested following treatment for cancer where they’d ceased to take their HIV-treatment medicine, and no infection was found. Despite appearances, the study is not ‘progress’ for HIV-related treatment. It is indeed a step towards an HIV-cure but not at all relevant for those already coping with the infection.
Thinking back to the Mississippi baby case (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-21651225), media reports were rife at the time with claims that this case would change the HIV treatment paradigm and prevent further infection in babies. The study’s author, Dr Deborah Persaud claimed it would “transform our current treatment practices in newborns worldwide”. The fundamental mistake made is the fact that it inflated the hopes of individuals. Physicians were suddenly on demand for a cure that doesn’t yet exist, and hopeful patients were sent away disheartened, and confused. Taylor, who commented on this issue in a blog entry, asks the question of whether the case details were prematurely released into the media. I strongly support the fact that they were, because the primary concern should always be about the patients’ needs, and not about existing practices.