Science in the News: Stop Taking Multivitamins

This blog post has two themes: 1.) Recent studies show that taking multivitamins doesn’t actually have any positive impact on health outcomes 2.) Isn’t it annoying how science is reported in the news?

This morning as I was going through my twitter feed, I followed a tweet from the Detroit Free Press that said “Stop wasting money on vitamins, supplements, report says” with a link to an article about an editorial in Annals of Internal Medicine that describes recent studies on taking the actual effects of taking multivitamins. The article in the Detroit Free Press started with a summary of the editorial, then gave a few quotes from the respected Johns Hopkins researcher who authored the piece, Eliseo Guallar. Finally, after at least 250 words (and everyone moving on to another article), they discussed the studies that this bold proclamation is based on.

Sure, journalism needs to get to the point fast. And they need to provide personality and human voices in their pieces. And they can’t be perceived as providing medical advice. But, my question is: does that have to be done at the expense of providing rigorous and evaluative background of the studies on which claims are based? As medicine shifts to being very evidence based, shouldn’t media coverage reflect this shift by moving away from heavy reliance on authoritative voices and towards reporting on actual studies? Especially since most people can’t or won’t read original studies that sit behind pay walls. I believe it’s the responsibility of journalists to bring that information to the forefront.

In this particular case, lending authoritative voices to these studies doesn’t do any real harm since the studies are pretty rigorous- a systematic review and two large scale cohort studies- but that’s not always the case. For example, remember that study that claimed to prove the link between autism and vaccines that couldn’t stand up to any form of critical appraisal, and yet created a media frenzy? Many journalists failed to report on the validity and reliability of the study’s findings, and it did real harm to their readers.

To conclude, this is a lament for more science in our science. In addition to highlighting findings, it’s also important to highlight the process!

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