“Teen’s junk food diet caused boy to go blind.” “Even one diet soda a day may triple your risk for developing dementia.” “Dark chocolate may help prevent some forms of cancer.” These are just a few of the health news headlines (or click bait?) that we consume on a daily basis. But they rarely reflect the actual or nuanced research findings.
Indeed, health news reporters and editors must exercise precision and consideration of public interest when constructing news headlines. Yet, too frequently they (and we) fall into the fallacy of equating correlation with causation. A deeper dive into the first news story above (“Teen’s junk food diet caused boy to go blind”) uncovers the subtle yet distinct difference between “causing blindness” (the news headline) and “can lead to blindness” (language from the actual study). Additionally, these do not equate to “will lead to blindness.”
But health news reporters are not entirely at fault here. The burden is also on the shoulders of those of us who conduct research. In this case, the study is published in the Annals of Internal Medicine and titled: “Blindness Caused by a Junk Food Diet.” The researchers state as their objective “To alert clinicians of the visual complications of a diet restricted to junk food.” Which begs the question, “Is blindness the same as visual complication?” And were the pre-existing vitamin deficiencies in the 14-year-old patient entirely the result of consuming junk food or were there other health factors involved?
The nature of empirical research is complex in terms of presenting findings and then interpreting the significance of those findings. If the researchers themselves are nuanced (or unclear) in the findings and/or the implications of those research findings, then we can’t expect fidelity or additional truth when the research is translated into broadcast media messages for mass public consumption. Or can we? Continue reading “Doing Health Media Literacy”