Anyone who writes critical articles about alternative medicine is likely, at some point, to be asked why. Some commenters will ask why bloggers write about alternative medicine while ignoring the failings of conventional medicine. Some go so far as to invent a reason themselves and suggest that the blogger might be a pharma shill. There are many reasons for blogging about alternative medicine. One is to address a perceived media bias; my perception is that (while publishing both praise and criticism of conventional medicine) the media tend to publish uncritical, wholly positive articles that, in essence, promote unproven or disproven treatments.
In 2008, I wrote a (frankly poor) blog post about serotonin pills in the media, pointing out that while articles about pharmaceutical or recreational pills claimed to positively affect mood via their effects on serotonin were generally negative, articles and press releases about pills containing ‘natural remedies’ 5-HTP or tryptophan tended to be more positive. My designation of articles as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ was entirely subjective and I only looked at a handful of articles. What I hadn’t appreciated at the time was that science has its own version of Rule 34 – if it exists, there is research into it (and if there isn’t, then there will be).
This paper found that “CAM therapies were most often described in a positive fashion, and CAM use was most often described as a potential cure for cancer. The majority of articles did not present information on the risks, benefits, and costs of CAM use and few provided a recommendation to speak with a health care provider before use.”
The authors of this review of CAM research and media reporting stated that “it appears that CAM coverage in the media is – for the most part – positive, although there may be some differences by country.” They also make the following observations:
- First, it seems that CAM related media coverage has increased over the past decade
- Further, coverage is–for the most part–positive towards CAM, which may partially result from discursive strategies used to minimize attention to potential risks
- the research reviewed here collectively supports the notion that increased media coverage of CAM is related to increased use of CAM in more recent years
- There is quantitative evidence to support increased CAM coverage in more recent years and qualitative evidence to support the persuasive nature of that coverage for a variety of audiences.
- the media remains an important source of CAM information for a variety of individuals and further research is needed on the reciprocal relationship between media coverage and CAM use
The authors of the above paper cite Ernst and Weihmayr on UK and German media reporting.
Ernst and Weihmayr include the following in their report:
- British newspapers seem to report on medical topics more than twice as often as German broadsheets.
- Articles in German papers are on average considerably longer and take a positive attitude more often than British ones.
- Drug treatment was the medical topic most frequently discussed in both countries
- compared with German newspapers, British newspapers report more frequently on medical matters and generally have a more critical attitude
Specifically looking at articles on CAM, the authors found:
- four articles in the German newspapers and 26 in the UK newspapers
- In the United Kingdom the tone of these articles was unanimously positive (100%) whereas most (3; 75%) of the German articles on complementary medicine were critical.
- The proportion of articles about complementary medicine seems to be considerably larger in the United Kingdom (15% v 5%)
- in contrast to articles on medical matters in general, reporting on complementary medicine in the United Kingdom is overwhelmingly positive
The authors found that, despite publishing more critical articles on medicine than German media, UK media were not only publishing more articles on CAM than German media but also publishing only positive articles.
Bonevski, Wilson, and Henry published an Analysis of News Media Coverage of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The authors distinguished between types of alternative medicine and claim that:
The results show that the biological group of CAM therapies appear to be viewed by the media in a similar way to conventional medical treatments and reporting scores were similar (54% and 52% respectively). Other forms of CAM, particularly the energy medicine and mind body medicine forms were poorly reported. This may be due to a lack of evidence or an uncritical view on the part of the media. The latter groups contained stories about CAM therapies such as meditation, magnet therapy, yoga, electric shocks, shock waves and visualisation. It may be difficult for journalists to access adequate and accurate information about these therapies.
The finding that “the biological group of CAM therapies appear to be viewed by the media in a similar way to conventional medical treatments” is interesting in light of this paper’s finding that “Newspaper coverage of herbal remedy clinical trials was more negative than for pharmaceutical trials; a result only partly explained by the greater proportion of herbal remedy clinical trials reporting negative results”. It seems that not only are conventional medicine and CAM treated differently by the media, but that different types of CAM are also treated differently.
Bonevski, Wilson, and Henry concluded that:
This study shows that there is substantial variability in the news reporting about complementary and alternative medicines and therapies. Overall, scores were generally low and the small improvement noted during the study period was not statistically significant. Currently, it appears that much of the information the public receives about CAM is inaccurate or incomplete. The development of strategies aimed at improving health news reporting deserves more focused attention from both the media and researchers.
I hope that this post goes some way to answering the questions “why do you criticise alternative medicine?” and “why don’t you write about teh evul Big Pharma?” Criticising alternative medicine goes some way (I hope) to redressing the lack of criticism of alternative medicine in the mainstream media. Where criticising conventional medicine and Big Pharma would involve repeating criticisms that were already being widely disseminated by the media, it would be redundant (unless I could add something of value to the discussion).
While there may be many other relevant factors, the combination of a perception of an uncritical media and this phenomenon might alone be sufficient to motivate the publication of blog posts critical of alternative medicine and its advocates.