....LMB: "Blinded Me with Science"....

July 17, 2002

Two common journalistic problems in two different articles about the same topic.

The problems: poor coverage of scientific issues, and misleading/erroneous headlines.

The topic: a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation about the portrayal of public health policy issues on TV medical dramas (authored by Joe Turow, a University of Pennsylvania professor who was one of my advisors for my Master's thesis). The above link takes you to the press release about the study, the full text of the study can be found here.

First we have an article from CNN.com (although we should note that reports on CNN.com are frequently different from those broadcast on the CNN network), "Study: TV dramas shape health attitudes". The opening paragraph reads:

Prime-time television dramas based on hospital staff and their patients aren't just helping Americans unwind at the end of the day, they are shaping attitudes about health care, according to a study released Tuesday.

And now we jump down to the 3rd to last paragraph (17 of 19):

The study did not venture to guess exactly how these shows might be shaping public opinion.

So apparently the report tells us how these TV shows shape public opinion by not telling us how these TV shows shape public opinion. Great. Or, to put it more accurately, this article doesn't know what it's talking about.

I skimmed through the study. It basically examines what health issues are discussed on TV medical dramas (like "ER"), and in what ways. It would be similar to do a study looking through the works of Shakespeare and counting up how many times the topic of love was discussed. Turow's study doesn't really talk about how these depictions of health topics influence the general public. The study makes some vague claims that these shows might cause viewers to think more about these policy issues, or perhaps discuss them with friends, but nothing more specific than that.

We've got another article on this topic by the Reuters news service caled "Hospital TV Shows Evenhanded on Policy Issues". While this title is much more accurate, it is still somewhat misleading.

The study found that most of the policy issues discussed on these programs presented both sides of the issue, and therefore were "even-handed." However the study also found that certain issues were discussed frequently, while others were discussed very rarely. 78% of the topics discussed were "ethical issues," which dealt with the morality of specific patient treatment policies (e.g. "should doctors give free needles to drug addicts"); only 9% were "resource issues," which dealt with the broader institutions of medical organizations, business and government (e.g. debates about Medicaid). So while the individual debates depicted are even-handed, the coverage of the American medical system is not.

Interestingly, about the last half of the article is about an HMO trade organization working to get more positive depictions of the health insurance industry into television and movies. And 4 of the articles 13 paragraphs are criticisms of the negative portrayal of HMOs in TV and movies, with very little rebuttal by the TV and movie people.

The "wrong headline" error occurs fairly regularly, with an article's opening lines being directly contradicted by the article's conclusions. This is a problem because not everyone reads every article all the way to the end. This way, an article can be techinically correct, yet still mislead a reader. Add this to the fact that many reporters seem unable to correctly interpret the results of any scientific studies, and you get a lot of people walking around misinformed.

Posted by Jake at 09:15 AM

Isn't the Kaiser Foundation involved with Kaiser Permanente the HMO? I smell conflict of interest here....
I recently read somewhere of an effort on the part of HMO's to improve their PR and their image in the media. Could this be a manifestation of that?


Posted by: michele at July 17, 2002 04:59 PM

The KFF's press release about the study has fine print:

"The Kaiser Family Foundation is an independent national health philanthropy dedicated to providing information and analysis on health issues to policymakers, the media, and the general public. The Foundation is not associated with Kaiser Permanente or Kaiser Inudstries."

Take that for what it's worth. KFF says it's not related to Kaiser.

Posted by: Jake at July 18, 2002 10:42 AM
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November 16, 2004

Tales of Media Woe

Senate May Ram Copyright Bill- one of the most depressing stories of the day that didn't involve death or bombs. It's the music and movie industries' wet dream. It criminalizes peer-to-peer software makers, allows the government to file civil lawsuits on behalf of these media industries, and eliminates fair use. Fair use is the idea that I can use a snippet of a copyrighted work for educational, political, or satirical purposes, without getting permission from the copyright-holder first.

And most tellingly, the bill legalizes technology that would automatically skip over "obejctionable content" (i.e. sex and violence) in a DVD, but bans devices that would automatically skip over commericals. This is a blatant, blatant, blatant gift to the movie industry. Fuck the movie industry, fuck the music industry, fuck the Senate.

Music industry aims to send in radio cops- the recording industry says that you're not allowed to record songs off the radio, be it real radio or internet radio. And now they're working on preventing you from recording songs off internet radio through a mixture of law and technological repression (although I imagine their techno-fixes will get hacked pretty quickly).

The shocking truth about the FCC: Censorship by the tyranny of the few- blogger Jeff Jarvis discovers that the recent $1.2 million FCC fine against a sex scene in Fox's "Married By America" TV show was not levied because hundreds of people wrote the FCC and complained. It was not because 159 people wrote in and complained (which is the FCC's current rationale). No, thanks to Jarvis' FOIA request, we find that only 23 people (of the show's several million viewers) wrote in and complained. On top of that, he finds that 21 of those letters were just copy-and-paste email jobs that some people attached their names to. Jarvis then spins this a bit by saying that "only 3" people actually wrote letters to the FCC, which is misleading but technically true. So somewhere between 3 and 23 angry people can determine what you can't see on television. Good to know.

Reuters Union Considers Striking Over Layoffs- will a strike by such a major newswire service impact the rest of the world's media?

Pentagon Starts Work On War Internet- the US military is talking about the creation of a global, wireless, satellite-aided computer network for use in battle. I think I saw a movie about this once...

Conservative host returns to the air after week suspension for using racial slur- Houston radio talk show host (and somtime Rush Limbaugh substitute) Mark Belling referred to Mexican-Americans as "wetbacks" on his show. He was suspended for a couple of weeks, and then submitted a written apology for the racial slur to a local newspaper. But he seems to be using the slur and its surrounding controversy to boost his conservative cred with his listeners.

Stay Tuned for Nudes- Cleveland TV news anchor Sharon Reed aired a story about artist Spencer Tunick, who uses large numbers of naked volunteers in his installations and photographs. The news report will be unique in that it will not blur or black-out the usual naughty bits. The story will air late at night, when it's allegedly okay with the FCC if you broadcast "indecent" material. The author of this article doesn't seem to notice that Reed first claims that this report is a publicity stunt, but then claims it's a protest against FCC repression. I'd like to think it's the latter, but I'm not that much of a sucker.

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Mission: Mongolia

Jake's first attempt at homemade Mongolican barbecue:


What went right: correctly guessing several key seasonings- lemon, ginger, soy, garlic, chili.

What went wrong: still missing some ingredients, and possibly had one wrong, rice vinegar. Way too much lemon and chili.

Result: not entirely edible.

Plan for future: try to get people at Great Khan's restaurant to tell me what's in the damn sauce.

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