Doing Health Media Literacy


“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”

Exposing Astroturfing As Only John Oliver Can

Astroturfing is the deceptive practice of presenting an orchestrated public relations or marketing campaign under the guise of unsolicited comments from members of the public. The term originated from the artificial grass astroturf applied to an artificial  grass-roots campaign.

Astroturfing is rampant across industries that are inextricably connected to health: Food, beverages, climate, and safety, just to name a few. Oliver humorously calls out:

The 18-minute segment is filled with media literacy gems (and fair warning: plenty of profanity since it’s HBO afterall). Oliver calls out the “Dr. Evil” of the public relations industry (Rick Berman) for a transparent lack of transparency. Oliver also points out the ridiculosity in the lobbying efforts of “Citizens for Fire Safety” (a front group for chemical companies that manufacture fire retardants) and its attempt to promote fire retardants through the paid testimony of a paid doctor who can’t keep his story straight. Oliver shows footage from the brilliant 2014 documentary film “Merchants of Doubt” (based on the book by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes) directed by Robert Kenner and produced by Participant Media. The film is well worth watching as it peels back the veil on the public relations magic of the tobacco industry and how the playbook is replicated in other arenas, including that of climate change.

In this Last Week Tonight segment, Oliver also calls attention to the fumblings and falsehood of paid demonstrators (“Crowds on Demand”). But he also cautions viewers against assuming that everyone who dissents is paid as a crisis actor or as an astroturfer. It is a slippery slope when viewers take critical thinking to the extreme and become cynical and dispirited.

Ultimately, Oliver has a well-balanced call to action: More corporate transparency at the macro level and a healthy dose of media literacy education at the micro level. Or as Oliver says, “fighting candle fire with candle fire.” You’ll understand the reference after watching the video below. Enjoy.