When the UK newspaper, the Independent, analysed the 20 most shared stories in the past year with cancer in the headline, more than half included claims which health authorities or doctors had discredited. Yet many millions of people had considered them interesting enough to share on social media.
If fake news stories about politics can influence voting patterns, then could health stories about unproven treatments result in people eschewing their current medical treatment in favour of the latest recommendation in an article they see? Some fear these articles could be dangerous.
How are people supposed to know whether something they see on Facebook or Twitter is based on good science?
People need to be wary of what they read, but how are they supposed to know whether something they see on Facebook or Twitter is based on good science? Every day I get dozens of emails from PR companies, sometimes about very good research, sometimes about nonsense. Like other health journalists, I spend time working out how to spot which is which.
I wondered whether the only way to be sure of the quality of what you’re reading, is to start employing the same tactics. So for the BBC’s radio series Health Check, I turned to three experienced health journalists for their tips – Sarah Boseley, the health editor of The Guardian, James Gallagher, BBC Science and Health reporter and Ivan Oransky, Watchdog Columnist at Stat News and Distinguished writer in residence at New York University. I also added a few of my own.
1. First, look for the source of the article. Check that it’s from a newspaper, website or broadcasting organisation with a good reputation.
2. Ask yourself whether this finding is really plausible. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
3. If it’s described as “the secret that even doctors won’t tell you” then be wary. Doctors have little to gain by keeping effective treatments a secret. They want to cure people. That’s what they’re there for.
4. The bigger the claim, the more evidence you need to see that it’s true. If this really is a massive breakthrough (and of course massive breakthroughs do happen) it will have been tested on thousands of patients, published in medical journals and covered by the biggest media around the world. If it is something so new that just one doctor is recommending it, you would do well to wait for some more evidence before following any health advice.
5. If the article says the research has been published in a particular journal, do a quick search online to check that the journal is peer-reviewed. This means that before an article can be published, it is sent out for scrutiny by scientists working in the same field. Occasionally even peer-reviewed papers have to be retracted if the results are later discovered to be fraudulent, but the vast majority do stand. If the research has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, be more sceptical.
6. Has the wonder treatment been tried in humans yet? Or only in a test-tube, or in mice? If human trials haven’t taken place, the treatment could still be interesting scientifically and it could show promise, but it’s too early to say whether it will ever be a viable treatment for people.
7. The web can save you a lot of time. Check it out on a website that reviews media coverage of news such as Health News Review, and you might find they’ve done the hard work for you.
8. If not, search for the journalist’s name to see what they usually write about. If they regularly write about science or health they’re more likely to know the right questions to ask about a new treatment.
9. Do an online search for the story’s details, plus the word “myth” or “hoax”. You might find it’s already been critiqued elsewhere.
10. Finally, once you’ve established that a health story isn’t fake and has been published in a reputable journal, you might still want check the methodology of the research. NHS Behind the Headlines looks at studies in detail, discussing how they were done and whether they’ve been reported correctly in the press.
Listen to Claudia Hammond discuss this topic and more on the BBC radio programme Health Check.
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