Is Medical and Nutritional Advice Offered by Media Correct? 62% of Online Medical Content Inaccurate

News related to health, medications, and other information affecting human life is highly sensitive. Therefore, media outlets that abide by professional traditions are very strict when it comes to this type of content, which is considered as important as media content, for example, on security. Yet, do local media outlets abide by these professional traditions when publishing information about human health?

Jordan"s electronic media outlets are rife with news items and reports that are of a medical nature. For example, some items promote the benefits of certain  kinds of fruits and food products for beauty and health, while others claim that mixing these products in certain quantities, and preparing concoctions or masks, can actively contribute to treating many diseases, including skin problems, such as flabbiness, freckles, pigmentation, and black lines. Other diseases include diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, heart, artery, and colon diseases, and even cancer. Many of these items fail to cite any medical or scientific proof or solid sources.

The Jordanian Media Credibility Monitor (AKEED) followed different samples of this kind of news throughout March 2016. For this purpose, it monitored the nine most read news websites in Jordan, according to Alexa: Al Wakeel, Saraya, Garaa, Ammon, Gerasa, Ro"ya, Al Kawn, Khaberni and Saraha.

The purpose of this exercise was to find out to what extent the monitored content complied with the professional standards AKEED upholds for citing sources. It also sought to find out if the reports and stories used one source or more, if they were identified or not, and if they were primary or secondary. It further aimed to check if these sources were informed and authorized, if they were trusted by journalists and readers, and if they provided facts or personal points of view.

The monitoring showed that 61.7% of online medical content in Jordan did not abide by the professional standards on attributing the medical and scientific information they publish to "identified sources," whether they were doctors, nutritionists, or studies published in refereed scientific journals and periodicals that are highly regarded in scientific, medical, academic and journalistic forums.

The findings also showed that 38.3% of the electronic media content in the sample complied with professional standards when reporting on this kind of news and cited its sources. This means that 72 out of 188 items that were monitored, which included various  press formats, such as news, reports, articles, graphics or infographics, cited sources, while 116 items did not cite identified sources, as shown in the table below:

Table (1)

Number of items posted on every website with or without sources, and percentages
NoWebsiteWith source%Without source%Total
4Al Wakeel0523.81676.221100
8Al Kawn00.000.00100

AKEED concluded from this monitoring that while refereed medical studies published by international and prominent research and study centers cover some of this news and the information contained in it, there is a great difference in professional practices between local media outlets and their foreign counterparts. The latter make sure they cite identified sources for any medical information they publish, be it medical research, recent studies, or information by a doctor or nutrition expert.

In a statement to AKEED, Dr. Ali Al Saad, chairman of the Press Committee of the Jordan Medical Association (JMA) and director of the Hospitals Department at the Jordanian Ministry of Health, said: "Publishing such reports can cause health hazards and complications. We should never underestimate how serious this is. In principle, we in the Ministry of Health and JMA do not allow for promoting any remedies in any way, unless it has been scientifically validated. Anything that is not registered with the Jordan Food and Drug Administration is considered non-compliant with specifications."

On whether there were any complications or side effects resulting from remedies promoted by the media, Al Saad revealed that some patients had suffered from complications, but these cases were not monitored or legally documented because the persons involved did not complain. He explained that a person who is harmed can lodge a complaint with the JMA or Ministry of Health.

Al Saad said that he hopes the next days would witness cooperation between citizens on the one hand, and the Ministry of Health and JMA on the other. He also hoped that the Ministry of Health, media and JMA would cooperate to hold accountable those responsible for promoting harmful mixes and products that do not meet medical specifications, or the ones that lack documented and verified results according to local and international medical rules. Such measures will ensure that media outlets do not turn into channels for promoting false information.

He revealed that the JMA intends to push for a piece of legislation on medical advertisement and media. According to Al Saad, this piece of legislation will significantly contribute to the regulation of the dissemination of health and medical news. He explained that the media is held accountable for promoting misleading information by the judiciary and licensing entities in case there was a violation of licensing conditions.

Al Saad categorically denied any knowledge of herbal blends or food products that are capable of healing incurable and chronic diseases, such as cancer, colon diseases, diabetes, etc. He elaborated that some foods have health benefits, but they should not be promoted by the media as drugs or medical products that treat diseases. He stressed that advanced countries allocate hundreds of millions of dollars for scientific research on drugs and cosmetics at advanced laboratories. Such studies extend over many years before the drugs or cosmetics can be used.

For his part, Dr. Jad Melki, associate professor of journalism and media studies and chairperson of the Communication Arts Department at the Lebanese American University, said in a statement to AKEED: "The emergence of specialized journalism more than two decades ago contributed to the rise of medical, beauty and fitness press. There are now specialists who study these subjects at universities and institutes. This has prompted media establishments, newspapers, and media outlets to give more attention to these subjects in a bid to attract a larger audience."

Dr. Melki underlined the importance of publishing refereed content in the media and refraining from publishing stories without solid and identified sources, given the hazards and side effects that can result from publishing false medical information. This has health, as well as social, implications.  He added: "This issue has very serious social repercussions. The audience of a media outlet could become more attached to superficial issues, while the media should be focusing on important issues. This could affect self-confidence as the receiver becomes more obsessed with looks, beauty, plastic surgery, and herbal blends that revive the skin or help lose weight."

Melki adds: "Journalists should be more serious and aware of the sensitivity of these subjects. The media should not promote unscientific blends and recipes that are in circulation among people without referring to solid and credible sources that are trusted by journalists and audiences alike."

As for the negative effects resulting from failing to cite sources, Melki points out that "this makes the published content susceptible to criticism and unfit for professional, academic and scientific circulation. The source in such items should be identified. It should be a primary, and not secondary, source to ensure the credibility of the content. The findings of studies on medicine, health, fitness and beauty are cumulative and require years of research and repeated experimentation to confirm the results before they can be disseminated. Serious and balanced media outlets are not satisfied with one source only; they usually verify the information from other sources."