Health and Public Health News: Who is accountable for (responsibly) informing the public?

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In October the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), issued a report evaluating the relationship between the consumption of red meat and processed meats and the risk of developing cancer (For the full report click here).

The report cites that for red meat the consumption is:

probably carcinogenic to humans, based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect. This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer” [stylistic emphasis maintained from original publication].

The report also cites that processed meat is “classified as carcinogenic to humans, based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.”

Not surprisingly the report was picked up by the news media very quickly and a search of news headlines from around the time of its release turns up an article that has a picture of a man smoking with a headline: “Processed meat could be classified as a cancer risk as big as cigarettes, in a new report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) due to be published on Monday.” Another headline simply states: “Processed meats do cause cancer — WHO,” and upon scrolling further down into the article the author states, “A bacon sandwich is not as bad as smoking.” Compare that to the first article.

After a flurry of inaccurate comparisons of the risk of developing cancer related to eating red meat versus smoking cigarettes, angry push back from the red meat industry and overall consumer confusion, the WHO released a press release clarifying the report: “The latest IARC review does not ask people to stop eating processed meats but indicates that reducing consumption of these products can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.” A little more clarification, indeed, but still not the entire story.

Unfortunately, the part that most consumers of this news story probably heard was “carcinogenic” and “cancer” and the links made by journalists to smoking cigarettes. The author of a New York Times analysis of the report published a few days after the report’s release writes, “Smoking raises a person’s lifetime risk of developing lung cancer by a staggering 2,500 percent. Meanwhile, two daily strips of bacon, based on the associations identified by the W.H.O., would translate to about a 6 percent lifetime risk for colon cancer, up from the 5 percent risk for people who don’t enjoy bacon or other processed meats.” Those are some statistics that consumers can easily digest.

Is it the responsibility of the news media to interpret the scientific research published by the WHO? And as consumers, do we want the news media interpreting this information?

Health studies and public health reports are issued every day. There are new medications, treatments, studies, that the producers of these reports often want the public to know about. What happens when bits and pieces of the “real story” are taken out of context? What happens when journalists turn a press release into a news story without researching the facts and getting more information? What happens when the researchers or universities or government agencies issuing these reports fail to remember that the majority of the public are not scientists and epidemiologists, ready with the tools to decipher complex health information?

And the real question in all of this is: Who should the unknowing consumer of public health information hold responsible for sharing, interpreting and reporting information of public health significance?

As public health professionals we are responsible to the public. We are responsible for disseminating accurate, researched, well thought out information before it falls into the hands of the public. As public health professionals we are the experts and the public relies on that.

In the past week I have seen three people post an article that drinking red wine is the equivalent to going to the gym. Let’s focus less on the tag line or the next sound bite and get back to the data, the facts and good quality scientific research. It is the responsibly of public health professionals, researchers, universities, research sponsors and government agencies to release information accurately, in easily digestible language, and with an interpretation of the data that is clear.

Even with that standard in mind, I’m not letting the consumer off the hook so easily: Hold public health professionals, researchers, scientists, governments and other organizations conducting and supporting research more accountable. Sound bites and breaking news headlines might seem attractive, but it’s the real news story, hidden somewhere behind all of the scientific jargon that matters and that you really want to know.

Katie Beck is a 2015–2016 Global Health Corps fellow at Partners in Health in Rwanda. All GHC fellows, partners and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. There is a role for everyone in the movement for health equity. Join the movement today.