Written by Caitlin Schille
Perhaps you remember the now-infamous “bacon study” that was released almost two years ago by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Parts of the official report used cautious language, stating that consumption of red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans” and that this conclusion is “based on limited evidence.” Other parts of the official report used more straightforward language in regard to processed meat, stating that processed meat has “sufficient evidence” that “the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer”. The report then does more to confuse readers by stating that “at the same time, red meat has nutritional value.”
This report caused problems in several ways and made itself an excellent case study for how health information and health news gets sensationalized and misinterpreted by both writers and readers.
The average reader would be left wondering if they should or should not avoid eating red meat. It is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” but it also has nutritional value. What am I supposed to do? Too often, health information in the news is presented without any clear conclusions or clear directions. A good health news article should leave the reader with a clear understanding of what they should or shouldn’t do.
The next mistake in the reporting of the “bacon study” was in the headlines. Like I said above, the language about red meat was cautious while the language about processed meat was more straightforward about its dangers. Even with that being said, the headlines that came out reporting on this study completely sensationalized the risk of eating processed meat. Based on the headlines, you would’ve thought eating a slice of bacon was a near-guaranteed cancer death sentence.
Here are some things to keep in mind to help you make sense of health news:
- Try to go to the original sources– in the case of the “bacon study”, it would be wise to read the original IARC release rather than sensationalized articles that are likely written by reporters who don’t have backgrounds in health communication or science.
- Keep in mind some important word differences:
- Association vs. cause
- Just because two things are “associated” does not mean one causes another.
- Probably causes vs. does cause
- There’s a big difference between a known cause and a probable cause in terms of how much evidence there is to back that claim up
- Association vs. cause
- Remember that news articles are intended to scare you so that you keep reading
- Think about associated behaviors:
- For example, you might come across a study that says something along the lines of “people who take the stairs instead of the elevator are 75% less likely to die of a heart attack”. It’s true that it’s a great idea to take the stairs for more exercise- but does just taking the stairs really reduce your risk of a heart attack by 75%? In these situations, it’s helpful to think about associated behaviors- let’s think about the associated behaviors of someone who takes the stairs. Someone who consciously chooses to take the stairs is more likely to be an overall health-conscious person- so a stair-taker is probably more likely to seek out other types of exercise, to visit their doctor for a yearly check-up, and to try to eat a healthy diet.
- Put numbers in perspective.
- A lone number means nothing. Always look for a reference point for a number. Remember in 2009 when newscasters were reporting that swine flu had killed 1,500 people? This number sounded like a lot, and certainly any death is tragic and worrisome, but to put that number in perspective, around 36,000 people in the U.S. die every year from the regular flu. 1,500 doesn’t sound so epidemically terrifying when put in perspective.