The mainstream media has always had a problem covering complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). It’s much like the problem they have covering the arguments about teaching evolution or creationism in public schools. The training of journalists to “tell both sides” of every story makes them try to present representatives and their points of view on two sides of any issue as if they were essentially equivalent. This may be an attempt to achieve objectivity, but without context it creates the erroneous and misleading impression that there is merely a difference of opinion among “experts” rather than a solid body of evidence and theory on one side (evolution, scientific medicine) and a relatively small cadre of faithful believers with little evidence to support their position on the other (creationism, CAM).
The media also likes a good David and Goliath story, and tends to cast the CAM community as small scale healers struggling to bring safe, natural remedies to the suffering against the opposition of large-scale, rich, corporate and academic machines trying to maintain their lucrative monopoly on the maintenance of illness. This ignores the truth of many hard-working, compassionate, and underpaid health care providers and many large-scale, wealthy supplement and alternative care industries, but it makes a more compelling narrative.
Lately, though, there have been a few small, encouraging signs that mainstream reporters can cover the issue of CAM in a way that accurately illustrates reality. Newsweek recently ran an article exposing the dangerous faith many of Oprah Winfrey’s viewers have in her opinions and those of the CAM “experts” (like actress Suzanne Somers) that she regularly promotes through her various media outlets (Live Your Best Life Ever).
Making the case that Oprah has a tremendous influence on people’s opinions and behavior, and that this should entail a responsibility on her to give truthful, accurate information, is a clear and cogent way to make an important point about unproven CAM approaches without in any way being biased on unfair.
Newsweek also ran an article in October, 2008 reviewing very generally reviewing the evidence for and against some popular CAM therapies (The Truth About Alternative Medicine). While the treatment of the evidence was somewhat superficial, the fact that the article emphasized looking at CAM in the same evidence-based way we look at mainstream medical practices is a step in the right direction.
Finally, Marilynn Marchione, a medical writer for the Associated Press, has written a couple of very sharp pieces recently pointing out that CAM is both very widespread and often not as safe as it is believed to be. (Alternative Medicine Goes Mainstream and 60 Pct of Cancer Patients Try Nontraditional Med)
I can’t remember the last time a mainstream media writer pointed out the naturalistic fallacy!
CAM advocates have a number of marketing advantages, and have made some smart strategically choices in how they characterize themselves and the medical mainstream, and science-based medicine is having to face the reality that being right about the facts is seldom as important in making a convincing argument as we’d like it to be. What media experts call “framing” is an important strategy, and these articles illustrate ways the debate can be framed that illustrate the true dangers of unquestioning acceptance of CAM and the importance of verifiable facts in making health care choices, while still remaining fair and open-minded. Let’s hope we see more of the like!
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