At a conference I attended yesterday in Boston on Reinventing Journalism, the talk was all about how online social media tools are introducing new models of sharing information and helping journalists do their jobs better. The panelists made scant reference to the financial meltdown of the mainstream press and only one speaker mentioned in passing his concern that this crisis is impairing the ability of journalists to dig up important facts and connect the dots — i.e. do the kind of investigative reporting that newspapers used to be known for.

Yet the evidence that this is happening is all around us and its impact is particularly glaring to me (as a longtime medical news junkie) in health coverage. As once-respected newspapers like The Boston Globe close their health and science sections and fewer papers report the reality behind the news coming out of medical journals and conferences, what we have left are television talk shows and wire services giving us a shallow and unskeptical view of new drugs and technologies.

On his HealthnewsReview blog yesterday, Gary Schwitzer makes a convincing argument that the palaver provided by the network television morning shows is actually a public health threat. Their health segments, he argues, “unquestioningly promote new drugs and new technologies” and give viewers false expectations about new treatments that may actually do more harm than good. As just one example, Schwitzer points to ABC Good Morning America‘s recent segment on an experimental obesity drug that it presented as a silver bullet for people wanting to drop a few pounds, without examining the possible side effects or conflicts of interest among the drug’s researchers.

Another case in point: this AP story on a newly published study in the Archives of General Psychiatry announcing the existence of chronic depression in preschoolers. The AP story quotes experts saying that children as young as 3 have a chemical imbalance that predisposes them to chronic depression, the inference being that they need to be treated with potent antidepressants. And indeed, the AP story ends by noting that a “rising numbers of preschoolers are taking psychiatric drugs, including Prozac, which is used to treat depression.”

As Philip Dawdy at Furious Seasons, notes with a wee bit of sarcasm: “AP just swallows the chemical imbalance theory of depression wholesale. That’s some nice skeptical journalism there.”

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