Why Write About Alternative Medicine? Part One: The Media

January 6, 2012 at 7:25 pm (Alternative Medicine, Media, Miscellaneous) ()

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.


  1. Cybertiger said,

    There’s stuff, nonsense, and a big dollop of psychopathology here … much as usual.

  2. mrsP said,

    The main reason for blogging on CAM should be that it doesn’t work and isn’t in fact “medicine”. For all the faults at least medicine and the drug companies have had a great deal of success in treating and preventing disease because most of it is based on evidence.

    Another reason is of course to annoy tiddles.

  3. anarchic teapot said,

    Scary, just… scary. I was going by all the guff that floats to the surface whenever you search for information on the Internet. Seeing the bias in the Press quantified is horrifying, especially when even so-called ‘serious’ rags like the Guardian and Observer are in on it (cf. Burzynski scandal)

  4. Cybertiger said,

    A pot of tea and potty mrsP … psychopathology in dollops. “Scary, just… scary.”

  5. ChrisP said,

    Strangely when controversial science issues are involved, the papers seem to go out of their way to get an opposing opinion, no matter how few people support that opinion. When controversial alternative medicine issues are involved, it is almost always the practitioners who are interviewed and other opinions are not sought.

    This is reason enough to write about and point out the wrongness of the information in the press about alternative medicine. It is sad in many ways that we have such an abundance of ‘worried well’ in the west, because it acts to fill people’s heads with this sore of nonsense. To the detriment of the overall health of the population – ergo MMR conspiracy theories and other anti-vaccine nonsense.

    I see tiddles has nothing to add, as usual.

  6. Cybertiger said,

    “This sore of nonsense”, dippy dollops like ChrisP, scientificstuffinteapots, and the wonderfully dotty mrsP … are all pudding proof of crazed psychobabbling, otherwise known as fruit & nuttiness at its most conventional. Wibble!

  7. doomrock said,

    This is properly scary, but not surprising. Newspaper journalism in this country is increasingly reprinted press releases, possibly with a few questions asked of the issuing party but with little or no research. CAM is a massive industry with, I’m sure, lot’s of money to spend on advertising and this is what the press largely relies on these days.

    It’s a very real worry as the quacks, however well intentioned (and I would question how many are well intentioned), are a dangerous bunch with an increasingly credulous and loopy following.

    What is the point of that twunt Tiddles? Can we not think of a better, nastier name for him? He really is a Fucktard.

  8. Cybertiger said,

    Is this what ‘science’ is left with … the likes of an imaginative wibbly-wobbly ‘doom rock’??!! Give me strength! Twaddle, duck, quack, twiddle … twat, arsehole!

    PS. Bring on jdc352’s Part 2 … more quackery, stuff … and reassuring nonsense.

  9. doomrock said,

    I rest my case.

  10. Cybertiger said,

    Wot on? The wibbly-wobbly rock of doom? Plonker!

  11. doomrock said,

    What conclusion did the industrial tribunal come to after you got sacked from your GP job? Why did you threaten your colleague? Oh, I remember, he accused you practising BAD MEDICINE. Your gaffer must have been jumping for joy after you gave them an excuse to finally get rid of you.

  12. Cybertiger said,

    Yee hawwww! Tosser!

  13. ChrisP said,

    Dr Struthers received a letter from Dr Ling, senior partner at the practice, saying that the surgery did not want to be associated with the contents of his letter which had been published in the British Medical Journal.


    Says it all really. I wouldn’t want to ba associated with that sort of lunacy either.

  14. doomrock said,

    Bedfordshire hey? Isn’t Nadine Dorries MP for part of Bedfordshire? There must be something in the water. Probably Mercury.

  15. anarchic teapot said,

    Doomrock, don’t say nasty things about Mercury. He was a great entertainer.

    Seriously, poor Bedfordshire.

    Cybertiger is just a pottymouthed troll who likes to accuse people of being mentally unstable: possibly as a smokescreen, given his behaviour.

  16. Cybertiger said,

    I spy with my little eye, a little black kettle, meaninglessly circulating about in the wackier outreaches of the blogosphere. TpottyTwot.

  17. doomrock said,

    But look what they CLAIM Mercury died of. There must be some connection I think you’ll have to agree……

  18. anarchic teapot said,

    Not living in the UK, I’m not 100% au fait with your local antiscience cult’s full range of fantasies. I just hope, since you mention Dorries, that there is no connection with the thefts she complains about in her last blogpost.

  19. Why Write About Alternative Medicine? Part Two: Entertainment « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] one of this series of posts was a po-faced commentary on the uncritical promotion of alternative medicine in the mainstream media. I pointed out the poor reporting of non-mainstream therapies, the inaccuracy and the […]

  20. Why Write About Alternative Medicine? Part Three: Risks « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] have associated risks that practitioners may not inform patients about. In part one of this series (here), I linked to research that found media coverage of alternative medicine to be positive (in some […]

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