Why Media Coverage of Medical Research is Making John Oliver Mad, and What PR Pros Could Do to Help

May 10, 2016


You’ve seen the headlines. They appeared on your Facebook feed, your Twitter handle and your local news. You probably overheard someone mention one on your way to work. Maybe you’ve even seen these:

  • “Swaddling May Be Linked to SIDS, New Research Analysis Suggests”
  • “Eating Moderate Amounts of Chocolate Could Benefit Mom and Baby”
  • “Drinking a Glass of Red Wine is as Good as Spending an Hour at the Gym”
  • “Daily Coffee May Boost Colon Cancer Survival”
  • “Giving High Fives Daily Reduces Risk of Heart Disease, Study Finds”

I made up the last one (who doesn’t love high fives), but the others? All true. Headlines like these are everywhere. And on the most recent episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the eponymous host skewered media for simplifying and stretching those headlines so much that they no longer resemble the science on which they were based.

Oliver opines that the effects of this incomplete health coverage are real. “It’s like a game of telephone,” he says. “The substance gets distorted at every step and I can only imagine how someone who watched that segment [about pregnant mothers and chocolate] must have described it the next day. ‘Oh! The news said our baby is made of chocolate is and it’s OK if I eat it, but only two thirds.’”

John Oliver’s reaction to this is that the media (particularly broadcast media) are at fault. The media’s natural reaction is that they’re not to blame because of reasons like these: Science is complicated. We have seconds to distill something that took researchers months. We’re just giving viewers what they want.

Despite calling out reporters and scientists, Oliver oversimplifies the problem and misses the difficulty all healthcare journalists face in making the complex simple and interesting for the public at large.

So, what can be done? I believe my PR pro colleagues and I have as much responsibility as journalists to get the facts right. Here are a few things healthcare public relations professionals can focus on:

  • Give reporters more than a press release: We owe it to media to provide more context than what goes over the newswire. That means access to our clients, physicians who participated in the research and independent experts who can provide an unbiased viewpoint.
  • Be transparent: We always want our clients’ news to shine, but it should not come at the expense of ensuring media understand the limitations of the research being presented.
  • Be a source of trusted information for patients: Online medical information is omnipresent, but how much of it is truly credible and understandable? We can help clients by ensuring their websites always have information patients comprehend and also direct them to resources with the highest seals of approval, places like the CDC, NIH and FDA.

I know I’ll keep seeing wild health headlines on TV, in newspapers and my Facebook newsfeed. They’ll even make me laugh, but as Oliver says, “Science deserves better than to be twisted out of proportion.”