February is a sweeps month – that’s the time that Nielsen passes out ratings diaries and asks “Nielsen Families” to record what they watch on TV. They do it four months a year (May, July and November are the other months) and despite new, high tech ways of counting eyeballs in front of the screen on a continual basis, TV Stations still rely a lot on these ratings to set their advertising rates. And that’s why we sometimes see crazy promos of sensationalized stories during this time period. They are desperately trying to capture audience attention during these months. Local TV reporters have confessed to me that they actually start working on sweeps stories months in advance, holding particularly “juicy” stories for those most important months. All local TV news folks breathe a sign of relief when the month is over.
Well, now it’s time for local TV News to turn the camera on themselves because a couple of new studies show that when they sensationalize – people die.
I’m sorry; let me be a little more responsible. Two newly published research studies (Study: Cancer Fatalism Propagated by Broadcast News | Smart Journalism. Real Solutions. Miller-McCune) show that the way local TV news stations cover the causes of cancer leads to cancer fatalism, meaning that people end up thinking that “everything” causes cancer and there is nothing they can do about it.
It seems when local TV news outlets report about cancer research they are, “less likely to include information that would allow viewers to follow up by seeking out additional resources, guidance or advice regarding the coverage they watched,” according to the study authors.
So what’s so bad about having cancer fatalism? This is where the people die part comes in. Previous medical research shows, “Americans who hold fatalistic beliefs about cancer prevention may be at greater risk of cancer because they are less likely to engage in various prevention behaviors.” (Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, 2007)
This wasn’t true for people who watched national newscasts and their research indicated it wasn’t just fatalistic people who happen to watch more local TV.
While ringing this alarm bell, they also issued a call to action, “researchers and public health officials might consider conducting education or training sessions with local TV journalists to report on cancer in a way that minimizes the likelihood of developing fatalistic beliefs.”
That’s where people like you and me come in – working with our clients (many of them the researchers and public health officials mentioned above) to help them discuss these issues clearly and succinctly with news outlets.
My former CNN colleague Gary Schwitzer has created a cottage industry of calling attention to the inadequacies of all health care reporting not just local TV news. He particularly rails against disease mongering on his web site healthnewsreviews.org. These studies will add wind to his sails emphasizing the importance of journalists’ getting it dead right. I encourage colleagues and clients to take a look at the site for a good evaluation of the state of health care reporting and how we can help.
The Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) is another incredible resource for reporters who want to understand the nuances of science and health reporting and the effect it can have on public health. Their annual conference with some 500 reporters in attendance provides a variety of workshops for writers, producers, and editors to become more adept at reporting health risks in a more responsible context. One of them is usually led by Schwitzer. They also conduct a variety of workshops and seminars as well as produce guidebooks for journalists navigating science, health risks and public policy.
While in Aesop’s fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf , the sheep and boy lost their lives, the townsfolk also suffered. So it’s incumbent upon all of us to make sure TV News doesn’t make the same fatal mistake. Film at 11.