A writer working with me in my health writing mentoring program recently wrote an article about a new piece of research.
The article looked at how walking for an hour a day can reduce the risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women (it was a fantastic piece, by the way!).
As I was reading her article, I began researching the issue myself to get familiar with it, and I came across an article from NHS’ Behind the Headlines initiative.
I wasn’t aware of NHS’ Behind the Headlines content. After doing a little clicking around on their site, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that their premise is to decipher fact from fiction in the latest scientific research.
According to their website, Behind the Headlines provide “an unbiased and evidence-based analysis of health stories that make the news”. And if you’ve read my blog on fish oil and prostate cancer, you’ll know how I feel about this!
The Behind The Headlines analysis on the breast cancer research was a great example of how they break down complicated medical research.
Reading health news – breaking it down
The Behind The Headlines article introduced the issue, then explained the type of research and what it involved. It summarised the key findings and take-home messages.
Then it looked at how the researchers themselves interpreted the results – before concluding with the overall strengths and weaknesses of the study.
Reading a piece like this is the next best thing to reading the actual study, for those who don’t have the time or aren’t able to read clinical papers. The Behind the Headlines piece delves deeper into the particulars of the study, like confounders and any issues with the cohort.
In this example, the cohort (the group of women studied) were mainly white, middle-aged/elderly and well educated, meaning the research findings may not apply for ALL women of all ages, race and socio-economic backgrounds.
Also, the results were self-reported which can sometimes be a more imprecise way of gathering data.
Should health writers produce articles like this?
While Behind the Headlines have a formula that helps with reading health news, their analysis is around 1700 words.
We can’t expect mainstream media to publish pieces like this every time they report on a new piece of health or medical research.
Problem is, many health news readers are time poor, are often reading news while multi-tasking, and are only really interested in one key take-home message.
That’s what health news writers understand and that’s why they write quick stories that often gloss over or omit important details.
Why do we need to go behind the headlines?
I appreciate what Behind the Headlines is trying to do, and I personally find it useful.
It does add yet another layer of reading and work for those who are interested in finding out more, though.
And would most people care to go ‘behind the headlines’ anyway?
I wonder: do we need this type of ‘health news watchdog’, or should health writers just get better at reporting on research?
Reading health news – further reading
Check out these articles if you’d like to find out more about reading health news: