The news can be a valuable source of information given that it makes one aware of the current situation of one’s community and world. Given that many do not have connections to the research community and do not read primary literature, news and health writers can provide a much-needed link. This connection is crucial because it can give hope and promise of a better tomorrow. It can provide information that one can reflect on their own time, answers to questions omitted during a health visit, and ease for anxiety related to health concerns that one faces.
Just as with the quality of a news source, health news also varies in quality. When you combine this with marketing tactics, such as sensationalist titles and methods that draw the ever-stimulating emotion, knowledge can be shaped in ways that do not correctly inform. One can understand the impact of these tactics like that of a public speaker. Many are drawn to those who touch on base emotions, like fear or love, and offer a proposed solution or agreeable outcome.
This can attach a user to the source, regardless of whether it is correct or evidence-based. When sources suggest that vaccines cause autism or are more dangerous than the disease (both have been refuted), using fear and confidence can get more views (and money), motivating improperly informed health decisions. These are the tactics of con (wo)men. A con does not necessarily require one to personally steal stock options.
The recent Canadian Twitter hashtag of #JUSTSAYNO is an excellent example of this. Multiple individuals falsely suggested that the COVID vaccines were dangerous and their risks overweighed their benefits. In reality, COVID vaccines are very safe. You are much better off getting the vaccine than the disease (little chance of death or post-COVID syndrome versus roughly 5% chance of death and probability of feeling terrible for an indefinite period).
Of course, such actions are not necessarily motivated by unethical motives. If I genuinely believed that pizza saved lives, I would encourage everyone to do whatever they could to get pizza. I think most people want to help others at the end of the day using what they know and believe to be right. This requires consumers to appraise what they consume critically. This includes health information. While this is what the subpopulations of physicians and scientists do every day, decisions matter for everyone.
How can consumers critically appraise information they do not necessarily have a background in and thus rely on others for an informed perspective? Just as what is taught for graduate and medical students, considering the source of information is central. This includes having skepticism about what is published on less trustworthy platforms, including Medium and putting even my writing into question.
Science literature is determined to be a more-trustworthy source because it is peer-reviewed. This means that what is written is validated by others in the field, and improvements, like additional experiments, can be required before considered canon and published. Medium and the typical “donteateggs.com” generally do not have this. My writing would be regarded as less trustworthy because it is not peer-reviewed.
This is why it is also essential to consider an individual’s credentials. When I read primary literature from peer-reviewed journals, the amount of trust I put in a paper includes the authors’ credentials, such as their degrees, institution, whether what they are discussing is in their field of expertise, the quality of the journal, among many other factors. In general, I trust individuals with MDs and PhDs more than those without concerning science because such training includes learning how to appraise literature and better present objective truth critically.
While such individuals do not always do this, like the (in)famous Dr. Oz, certain degrees support their arguments. While those without a college degree can have quite valuable perspectives and observations, I would put a lot less trust in their guidance when managing human lives. I would certainly never want my doctor to prescribe me fish oil if I had a heart attack.
While having more education can make one a more trustworthy source of information from an academic perspective, one does not need this extra training to think critically about the story one reads. An excellent first step for anyone seeking to gain perspective is to reflect on the feelings you experience when you read sensationalist news titles. Is it fear, anger, or sadness? If you understand what you are feeling, you can place what you are reading in that perspective to understand why the article is appealing to you. This simple act can guide more informed decisions.