Where's a bloke to go for decent health information these days?
Look in any newspaper, any magazine. Turn on the telly. There's been a growth in media interest in health over the last few years but quantity doesn't mean quality. Far from it.
For blokes it's a particular problem. In some areas of the media where you'd expect to find specifically male health covered, interest is actually declining. When Peter Baker, the director of the Men's Health Forum, was health editor of men's magazine Maxim, he had a good half a dozen pages to fill each month. Today you'll be lucky to find two. (And one of them is a sexy nurse in a short skirt.) Many of the other 'lads mags' are even less bothered. That's because they think you aren't bothered either.
Of course, there are specialist mens health and fitness magazines preaching to their particular brand of the converted but frequently these mags appear to be suffering from a terminal lack of imagination. 'Hey guys, what shall we put on the cover of this month's issue?' 'I know, how about a bloke with a six-pack and shoot the photo in black and white?' 'Wow, great idea." Content can be similarly repetitive with health wrongly seen as synonymous with fitness. This reflects a bit of kidology that we all like to practise on ourselves. We play footie every week so we must be fit and if we're fit we must be healthy. That was exactly what I told myself just before I got cancer.
The media is led by fashions and fads and its coverage of health issues is no different. You hadn't heard of the Atkin's diet a year ago. Now you could paper Windsor Castle with cuttings about it. Writing about Atkins, you see, means you can print a picture of Jennifer Aniston. Editors are obsessed with personal stories. A tasty 'how I nearly died' piece interests them in a way an article offering ten things you could do to avoid cancer never can. Ideally, case studies should feature people under 40 even if people in this age group get the disease once in a blue moon compared to older people - breast cancer, prostate cancer, for example.
'It's a very unfavourable trend led by advertising,' says Caroline White, chair of the Guild of Health Writers. 'People need to look a certain way.' White freelances as a press officer for a leading medical organisation. 'Journalists tell me they need the story to be controversial to sell it to the editor. The trend towards real-life stories is dreadful. You need to lard a story up with terrors.'
Everyday medical research is often lauded as a breakthrough. The information that 'this drug still needs full medical trails and is unlikely to come to market for at least five years' appears only in the last paragraph if it appears at all. Similarly, although most people are mostly happy most of the time with the NHS, media reports are always of NHS crises.
Health think-tank the King's Fund published a recent report based on monitoring actual media coverage. 'News coverage of health issues is seriously out of proportion with actual risks to health and fails to reflect risks shown in health data,' they said. The study concluded that the news agendas of the print and broadcast media were skewed heavily towards dramatic stories such as 'crises' in the NHS and major health 'scares', rather than issues that statistically have a greater impact on health, such as smoking, obesity, mental health and alcohol misuse. For example, 8,571 people died from smoking for each news story on the health risks of smoking, compared with 0.33 deaths for each story on vCJD (the human variant of 'mad cow' disease).
Magazines have a slightly different problem. 'Magazines have always been led by products and lifestyle,' says Caroline White,' but it is getting worse. They're aspirational so they don't want articles on obesity, for example. Something that is free is of less interest than something that can have advertising sold around it,' she says. This is a problem as most of the things you can do to be more healthy are free.
The need for controversy can lead to manipulation, not always deliberately, of the stastistics. If you have a 0.1% chance of getting disease X and that goes up to 0.2%, it much better to say 'Risk of X doubles' than 'You've still sod all chance of getting X'. As Caroline White says: 'This can lead to patients making dangerous decisions to, for example, stop their medication.' Recognising this fact, the BBC has recently compiled draft guidance to help news reporters and editors improve their handling of risk stories.
Much of this is not the media's fault. It is the nature of the beast. The truth is you and I are more likely to buy a paper or watch a programme with the 'big risk' headline than the 'sod all chance' headline. What it means is that the mainstream media can never be a reliable source of information.
That's where the internet comes in. There's lots of health information on the internet. Absolutely reams and reams of it. Trouble is a lot of it's not what you want. It's too technical. It's frightening. It's unrepresentative. It's inaccurate. It's irrelevant. 'The internet is a potentially great tool and very democratising but it needs to be approached sceptically,' says Caroline White.
So how do you do that? The Men's Health Forum believes that the internet is a natural place for men to look for health information. It can be accessed confidentially 24/7 and, if you visit the right site, it can be free. That's why we set up malehealth in the first place. Apart from the labyrinthine library of information on the site itself - all easy to read, all easy to find (especially with our new interface) - there are links to other sites. Obviously, we can't vouch for the quality of these sites but what we can say is that we only include organisations that we think will be useful or interesting to you. And there are no links to loonies selling you Venusian star-dust as a cure for piles or similar.
Malehealth has a simple philosophy. It's that good health is simple. But that it's false to try to put it down to one single thing. Whatever, the latest media-health fad might imply, no one thing is going to make you happier or healthier. Good health is simple but it results from a combination of simple things. Malehealth aims to help you find your right combination.
- no medical breakthrough stories only frank assessments of new treatments
- no 'NHS lurching from crisis to crisis' stories only intelligent, evidence-based health policies from the Men's Health Forum.
- no eye-catching statistics that add up to very little - we'll try to explain the real risk.
- the latest fad will be subjected to scrutiny not lavished with column inches
- we'll work towards providing the answers that you want to everything you might need to know — we strive to be comprehensive.
by Jim Pollard, editor of malehealth.
Where do you look for useful health information? What do you think of health journalism today? And, most importantly, what do you think of malehealth?
Page created on October 23rd, 2003
Page updated on December 1st, 2009