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I began the talk by expressing my thanks and humility for being invited to speak in a lecture series that had previously hosted George Annas, Art Caplan, Robert Veatch, Linda and Zeke Emmanuel, Daniel Callahan and many others whose work I have followed and admired. I expressed my appreciation for being the first journalist to speak in the series and hoped that I would not be the last.
I noted that one previous speaker in the series had said, ”In the last 30 years, our entire ethical sensitivity has increased substantially.” I began by wondering if the same could be said about increased ethical sensitivity in media messages about health care. And then I launched into my own 30 year retrospective.
I cited a few examples from the epiphany I had in 1984 as a reporter whose eyes were opened to the hype/misinformation disseminated on AIDS, Artificial Heart, Alzheimer's. And then I transitioned to a reflection on how the same or similar issues are covered today. I offered only a few examples; it would have been a 5-hour talk if I'd made the list more complete. CNN, not coincidentally, is cited in many of the examples, some of them from my own first-hand experience. From the ‘80s, the network insisting on hourly live reports of artificial heart patient updates, and the hyping of a trial in 4 Alzheimer’s patients. In ’90, the hype of an AIDS patient (or was he?) claiming cure from a hyperthermia experiment. Then in the current era, CNN lending credence to cloning claims by a UFO-obsessed sect, and claiming an “exclusive” and “breakthrough” on a hospital news release claiming a cancer cure was within reach. The talk emphasized shared responsibilities on the part of all who communicate about medical research and health care claims. It touched on the imbalance in many media messages about screening tests, with journalists sometimes crossing the line from independent vetting into non-evidence-based advocacy. I cited the Statement of Principles of the Association of Health Care Journalists (which I wrote). It pointed to how medical journals can be complicit in the miscommunication of findings, but how many articles are now being published in journals raising questions about “spin” and bias and interpretation and word choice.