“My sense is that of all the categories of fake news, health news is the worst. There’s more bad health news out there than there is in any other category,” said Kelly McBride, the vice president of the Poynter Institute. And “reliable sources on other topics are [sometimes] really bad on health care news.”
This includes not just deliberately misleading stories, like the ones about that mom from who-knows-where who’s discovered all those secrets—for weight loss, for teeth whitening, for reversing wrinkles—that doctors don’t want you to know about, but also what Joanne Kenen, the executive editor for health care at Politico, calls “junk news.”
“The junk news would be… how many coffee studies have we read that all say something different?” Kenen asked. “If you’re a PR department that really wants to get your study read, you would say ‘Chocolate and Coffee Guarantee Great Sex Until You’re 80.’ You would break your server.”
PR departments and the researchers they serve are a little bit to blame for the problem, for hyping up studies like that, McBride said. But journalists are to blame as well, for taking the bait, and for doing their own hyping to get those sweet sweet clicks. Even if they don’t hype—even if they responsibly cover a study done in mice, say, and clarify that it’s just in mice, and don’t say it means anything more than it does, readers might ascribe an outsized importance to that study just because the journalist chose to highlight it at all. “Everybody has a role in this,” McBride said.
If health is indeed the worst subject for fake news, it’s because it’s got a few things working against it. It’s not just that the current journalism environment rewards quick, numerous, clicky stories—that’s true for all subjects. But it creates additional problems for science news because “the cycle of journalism and the cycle of science are completely incompatible,” McBride said. The scientific process takes a long time, which means new developments happen very slowly. “In science, good information is really boring. Science doesn’t leap ahead the way journalists like to cover it,” McBride said.
In fact, the slow nature of science is sometimes used against it. Science takes a long time to answer questions; findings get refuted; the accepted wisdom changes. And some climate change deniers and vaccination skeptics have started sowing doubt by saying the science on these issues is unsettled, that there are still open questions we have to investigate.
And within the broad realm of science, health science may be an easier domain for misinformation to flourish. “I think it’s fair to say we are differentially vulnerable to misleading news depending on the topic,” Southwell said. “Health in general tends to be very personal for people.” Information—and misinformation—about your well-being is likely to feel more high-stakes than information about the business world, or celebrities.