In February this year, an article was published in the Wairarapa Times-Age (both in print and online) headlined Use of natural remedies is on the rise. The article discussed some specific cases of so-called “natural remedies” being used to treat serious diseases, such as intravenous vitamin C for leukaemia and homeopathy to treat various forms of cancer.
Except for a brief mention at the bottom of the article encouraging people with cancer to talk to their doctor before using any “alternative therapies”, there was no mention of the fact that none of the treatments discussed are supported by any reliable evidence. Instead, the article uncritically included various quotes such as this, from homeopath Claire Bleakley:
Featherston-based homeopath Claire Bleakley said she has treated cancer patients using similar natural remedies [to intravenous vitamin C] – significantly extending life expectancy.
She mentioned two of her patients in particular: A man with tumours who lived for seven years after being given two to live, and a woman with ovarian cancer who lived 15 years past her initial prognosis.
“There have been some exceptional results,” Mrs Bleakley said.
“We are indoctrinated to think chemotherapy is the only cure for cancer, but alternative [remedies] have been proven to be more life giving.”
Medical anecdotes such as these unfortunately tend to be very convincing despite the fact that they can also be completely misleading. The reasons why people might get better are varied and complex. Without running a controlled test, there’s no way to know whether or not a particular treatment contributed to an improvement in health. That’s exactly why we need to undertake rigorous clinical trials before we can say with confidence what the effects of any particular treatment are. It’s also why the Medicines Act prohibits the use of health testimonials like this in advertisements, although that restriction of course doesn’t extend to news articles in publications like the Times-Age.
I thought, and still do think, that the lack of balance in this article has the capacity to do serious harm. I wrote to the editor of the Wairarapa Times-Age to make my case, and to give some suggestions for how they might attempt to mitigate the damage this article could do, in a formal complaint:
To whom it may concern,
I am writing to you to make a formal complaint regarding the article “Use of natural remedies is on the rise” published in the Wairarapa Times-Age this morning:
This article uncritically promotes the use of so-called “natural remedies” such as vitamin C or homeopathy for the treatment of cancer. They are promoted by the inclusion of quotes such as “There have been some exceptional results”, regarding the treatment of cancer with homeopathic products.
None of the relevant controversy regarding these treatments is discussed in the article. Although there is a brief note at the end that “those living with cancer [are encouraged] to consult their doctor or specialist before embarking on any alternative therapies”, this does not sufficiently address the important and relevant fact that these treatments are entirely unsupported by scientific evidence, as well as the utter implausibility of treatments like homeopathy.
The failure to discuss the lack of scientific evidence supporting these treatments, as well as the complete lack of plausibility underlying homeopathy, violates the Press Council’s principle of “Fairness, Accuracy and Balance”. The description of this principle on the Press Council’s website states that:
“Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.
Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.”
This is not a long-running issue in which readers can readily be expected to be familiar with the lack of evidence supporting the treatments discussed in the article, so the exception should not apply. There is significant controversy surrounding the issues discussed in this article, but a fair voice has not been given to the opposition view.
Particularly as this article could lead to people living with serious diseases such as cancer to rely on ineffective treatments such as homeopathy, its lack of balance has the potential to cause real and serious harm. Therefore it is important that the Wairarapa Times-Age take appropriate action to prevent this harm by amending the article, publishing a prominent correction, or publishing a followup article linked to from today’s article, that discusses the lack of evidence and plausibility underlying the treatments discussed in today’s article.
If the Wairarapa Times-Age has trouble finding any experts to talk to about this topic, either the Society for Science Based Healthcare (http://sbh.org.nz/contact) or the Science Media Centre (http://www.sciencemediacentre.co.nz/contact-us/) will be able to help.
Society for Science Based Healthcare
Despite sending a follow-up email a few days later, I still hadn’t heard back from the editor over the next 10 working days, which is the deadline set in the Press Council’s complaints process as the time to wait before escalating a complaint to them if you don’t hear back from the editor. After I forwarded my complaint to the Press Council, the editor contacted me to apologise that he’d overlooked my complaint messages, which was apparently due to his having to deal with another complaint about the same article from Peter Griffin, manager of the Science Media Centre (Peter is also the editor and manager of Sciblogs, where my blog is syndicated, and we’d discussed our complaints via email prior to submitting them).
When I forwarded my complaint to the Press Council, I fleshed it out a bit more. I won’t quote the whole thing here as a lot of it would just be repeating myself, although I’d be happy to share my full complaint if anyone would like to see it, but here is one part I added that I think is important and worth sharing:
As far as I’ve been able to tell, the Wairarapa Times-Age has not published a large number of articles regarding this, so it cannot be argued that the counterpoints have already been published in earlier articles.
When it comes to whether or not readers can be expected to be familiar with the important facts not mentioned in this article, I would like to bring the Press Council’s attention to a 2009 study (I am not aware of any more recent data collected on this) published in the New Zealand Medical Journal entitled “Beliefs about homeopathy among patients presenting at GP surgeries”. This study can be accessed for free on Page 94 of this PDF:
This study found that only 8 out of 124 respondents disagreed to some extent that “There is good scientific evidence that homeopathy works”, and only 24 respondents reported that they believed homeopathic products were either “very dilute” or that there was “nothing there”. In contrast, 82 respondents agreed to some extent that “There is good scientific evidence that homeopathy works”, and 80 believed that homeopathic products are either “Very concentrated”, “Moderately concentrated”, or “Moderately dilute”.
Contrary to these common beliefs, most homeopathic products are diluted to the point that it is astronomically unlikely that there is even a single molecule of the original ingredient present in the product, and there effectiveness is thoroughly unsupported by scientific evidence. For example, a rigorous review undertaken by the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in 2013 investigated the evidence regarding homeopathy for 68 clinical conditions and concluded that “The available evidence is not compelling and fails to demonstrate that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any of the reported clinical conditions in humans”
For this reason, and especially because the article discussed the use of ineffective therapies in the treatment of terminal illness, it is very important that stories such as this be balanced. As I stated in my original complaint to the editor, I believe the article in its current form has the capacity to do serious harm and that the Wairarapa Times-Age has a responsibility to mitigate this harm. An appropriate response would be amending the article, publishing a prominent correction, or publishing a followup article linked to from the article from the 10th of February that discusses the lack of evidence and plausibility underlying the treatments discussed in today’s article.
(The NHMRC link I provide there is from their 2013 conclusion. Within 2 weeks of submitting this complaint, however, they released their final statement on homeopathy, which states “there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective”. This statement was not reported in the Wairarapa Times-Age)
Once the complaint was escalated to the Press Council, the editor of the Times-Age was given an opportunity to respond, then I had a final opportunity to write a short response to that. His primary argument was that the topic of “alternative medicine” was a long-running issue in a wider context, and that the exemption to the principle of balance should apply because other media have reported on the opposing side of the issue.
I strongly disagree with this argument. Although it’s true that media like the Wairarapa Times-Age do not exist in a vacuum, I don’t think this should mean that they don’t have a responsibility to provide balanced articles for their readers. The way I interpret the Press Council code, the exception can be useful when an article is part of a series of articles on the same issue, and when taken in the context of other articles in the series the overall view still maintains an appropriate balance. In the interest of balanced reporting, I believe exceptions to the principle of balance should be applied very sparingly.
Unfortunately, the Press Council disagreed with me. They have ruled not to uphold the complaint, and you can view their entire decision on their website here:
Case Number: 2426 MARK HANNA AGAINST WAIRARAPA TIMES-AGE
Here’s a link to their similar ruling regarding the complaint from the Science Media Centre:
Case Number: 2425 SCIENCE MEDIA CENTRE AGAINST WAIRARAPA TIMES-AGE
Here is a summary of their decision:
The Press Council agrees with the editor that the debate over alternative remedies is sufficiently well known not to require balancing comment in every story about them. The subject falls within the exception to the principle of balance for issues of enduring public discussion.
The complainant in this case raised the important question of whether the exception can be invoked for an article in a newspaper that may not itself have covered both sides of the debate. The Council considered this point closely and came to the view that the exception has not been applied as narowly as the complainant contends and should not be. A newspaper, even if it is the sole newspaper of its locality, does not exist in a vacuum. Its readers, meeting an uncritical story on the supposed popularity of homeopathy and natural remedies, are likely to be aware the efficacy of these treatments is strongly contested by medical science.
I think this is a very worrying precedent to set. Newspapers such as the Wairarapa Times-Age can now feel justified in publishing unbalanced articles on topics such as homeopathy without feeling bound to uphold the Press Council’s principle of balance. The public have a reasonable expectation, given that the Press Council exists to uphold standards in reporting and its first principle is that articles should be accurate, fair, and balanced. While it’s a good idea to take everything you read with a grain of salt, you should be able to feel justified in expecting media reports on controversial topics to provide a balanced view. I worry that people might read articles such as this with that assumption in mind, and falsely conclude that the views omitted from the article are not merited.
I’m also rather frustrated that the Press Council concluded that anyone reading articles such as this is “likely to be aware the efficacy of these treatments is strongly contested by medical science” even though I provided data from a survey that found only 6% of respondents disagreed that “there is good scientific evidence that homeopathy works”. I understand that the survey I cited was conducted 6 years ago, but as I said in my complaint I’m unaware of anything more recent.
Although I don’t think it is, I really hope that the Press Council’s conclusion that most people are aware that homeopathy is not supported by evidence is correct. Following last year’s story about Green MP Steffan Browning backing homeopathy for ebola and March’s story about the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council concluding that homeopathy does not improve people’s health, I think there is some basis to believe that more people are familiar with the lack of evidence surrounding homeopathy than 6 years ago, but I don’t expect there would be that large a difference.
One positive thing to take away from this, at least, is that the journalist who wrote the article said in a Facebook comment that she understood the article was unbalanced and that she should have done better. I hope she’ll take this as a learning experience and, when she or other Wairarapa Times-Age reporters write on matters of “natural health” in the future, that they get in touch with the Science Media Centre to provide that much-needed balance. If we can’t rely on the Press Council to hold journalists to a high standard of balanced reporting, then we’ll have to rely on journalists’ and editors’ own standards.
EDIT 2015/04/14 10:05 am: Peter Griffin, who also complained to the Press Council about this article, has published his thoughts on the ruling as well: When balance goes out the window
EDIT 2015/04/04 1:13 pm: The Wairarapa Times-Age has published a short article on this ruling: Times-Age supported by Press Council
EDIT 2015/04/14 2:21 pm: Grant Jacobs has also published a post with his thoughts on this ruling: Press Council rules on knowing readers minds?
EDIT 2015/04/15 2:51 pm: Andrew Bonallack, the editor of the Wairarapa Times-Age, has published his thoughts on the Press Council decision in an opinion piece for the Times-Age: Your right to choose sacrosanct