TV News Can Kill You – Film at 11

Feb 09

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 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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 9th, 2011 at 11:48 am and is filed under Best Practices, Media, Public Health. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

4 Responses to “TV News Can Kill You – Film at 11”

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  2. Bill Flood says:

    I don’t have any illusions about sweeps, the limitations of TV news or its impact versus its relatively limited staffing. I did it for many years, in a few different guises.

    But I was trying to figure out exactly what local television was being compared to (“less likely” than WHAT?), so I clicked through to the original article and found a few possible hitches with the story.

    Worth mentioning: the first study also concludes that TV newscasts were “more likely to discuss scientific research findings” – hopefully not a bad thing. Although perhaps given the palpable disgust with TV news, you view it as a negative.

    Also, the researchers may have been comparing apples and oranges. The newspaper selections were from the top 50 media markets. The newscasts were from 122 stations ‘across the country’. If that includes minor media markets, it compares the best (or at least, most successful) newspaper reporting with beginner TV reporters in tiny markets.

    It also doesn’t attempt to sort out locally originated reporting from national. (Local newscasts often leave national stories for the networks. Local newspapers don’t do that.)
    Oddly, it only looks at late evening newscasts – where the ‘news hole’ is typically smaller and stories shorter than in, say, the noon or 6pm newscasts.

    Finally, all of the data is almost a decade old. I’m willing to bet that more current reporting has many more chances for viewers to find ‘alternate resources, guidance and advice’, merely from the dramatic increase in internet referrals commonly used to ‘tag’ TV reports.

    The second study is a bit more compelling, but also has its limitations. The most obvious is self-selection. Some people watch local news and don’t read the paper. Some do both. Some only read the paper and disregard all TV news as blow-dried piffle. I’m willing to bet that choice of behavior reflects differences in world view, perhaps including ‘fatalism’.

    By the way, is holding a story for ‘sweeps’ much different than holding a story for, say, the Sunday paper – where it gets advance promotion, more pictures and graphics and more column inches? Has an editor ever ‘confessed’ doing *that*?

  3. Mason Essif says:

    All points well taken – particularly that since the studies were done in the early oughts (2002 & 2005), TV stations make a lot more information accessible on their web sites.

    I have the utmost respect for today’s broadcasters, working on incredible minute to minute deadlines with fewer and fewer resources (mainly human). My intent was to jolt potential spokespeople, experts, and news sources into appreciating the need to help reporters out and take the time necessary to educate them if they don’t seem to be getting it.

  4. kathy ashby-kaminsky says:

    As a nurse,mother,and research developer in the petroleum field…it has long been realized that sensationalizing any medical news…good or the media makes it real…recently in our area, there has been a huge problem with overdoses caused by bathsalts….although i am not the kind to hide my head in the sand and say it couldnt have happened any way…making it the headlines on the local news and an inexpensive high comparable to that of cocaine or methamphetamines..certainly didnt not curtail the outbreak at all…it tripled it…..