Open up a newspaper on a daily basis or listen to the news and you will hear a health related story. Health is frequently discussed and debated in the media demonstrating its importance. However, despite this frequent media reporting there are often heated debates in relation to health stories, health policy and health related issues. For example, when I opened up The Metro newspaper on my usual train journey into work on Tuesday March 13th, I read a report with the headline ‘Bacon sarnies and fizzy drinks ‘take years off your life’’ (see http://www.metro.co.uk/news/892930-bacon-sandwiches-and-fizzy-drinks-take-years-off-your-life). The report starts simply enough by describing how eating red meat and having a fizzy drink per day increases the risk of heart disease, based upon a recent research study. However, a contradictory viewpoint is then presented with industry representatives arguing that red meat is beneficial for health in many ways, and that drinking fizzy drinks is not linked to an increased risk of heart disease according to any research that they have seen. So who to believe? Are there any vested interests or biased perspectives presented here? This links to the important issue of interpreting and evaluating evidence, which is discussed in chapter three. This media report and many others show the need for all health students to use critical appraisal skills in evaluating the different perspectives and evidence illustrated in the media. Ben Goldacre, a medical doctor and author of a book called Bad Science blogs about research and the interpretation of evidence regularly; illustrating many of the issues with media reporting in relation to health (see http://www.badscience.net/). Research can be contradictory and inconclusive, evidence is often difficult to interpret too, and media reports can be unhelpful. Some commentators argue that this is because journalists themselves lack health knowledge and appropriate scientific training (see http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/05/27/faulty/).
However, perhaps more difficult territory exists. Rather than evaluating evidence the values and opinions that are held in relation to health continually surface in media reports and debates. Contemporary Health Studies discusses values at various points in the book for example in relation to health promotion (see chapter seven), health policy (see chapter eleven) and current threats to health such as lifestyle diseases (see chapter two). A Channel Four news feature on March 23rd demonstrates different opinions and values in relation to the consumption of alcohol and government proposals to introduce minimum pricing. There are health commentators who argue that this is necessary to tackle the UK’s high levels of liver disease (and other associated health problems) as a result of drinking too much alcohol and alternatively many who argue that such a policy will not work including industry commentators (see http://www.channel4.com/news/government-sets-out-alcohol-minimum-price-plan and http://www.channel4.com/news/alcohol-abuse-a-scandal-thats-proving-hard-to-tackle). Statistics demonstrate that alcohol related illnesses are a contemporary threat to health, alongside other life-style choices that we make such as smoking. UK Smoking is now subject to political intervention in the form of a smoking ban and further suggested policy changes such as the removal of displays of tobacco products at the point of sale. So what do you think in relation to these issues and where do your values lie? Should the government be intervening in our behaviour and legislating to try to encourage us to drink and smoke less, or should this remain our individual choice? Is the government becoming too much of a nanny state in relation to our health or is this policy change, a positive move because it reflects the creation of healthy public policy (see chapter 11 for a discussion of healthy public policy)? Why is it that smoking and drinking have been subject to legislative changes at the expense of other health determinants such as poverty? Debates abound and continue, with some suggesting that the nanny state is a good thing (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12360045) and others remaining strongly opposed to legislation and state intervention in relation to health.
All of this shows very clearly that health is not value free. Indeed, we all have opinions about it and often make value judgements about health related behaviour and health policy. These judgements can result in stigma and negative labelling (see chapter four), and again the media reflects such values too. Often media reports are reflective of negative labelling and value judgements in all areas of social life, including health. For example, reports about obesity and overweight individuals reflect negative value judgements (see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2033486/Your-children-fat-again.html), binge-drinking is negatively portrayed (see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-302531/Special-report-Binge-drinking.html and mental illness remains heavily stigmatised. Many other contemporary health issues remain reported in the same way so as people interested in health, we need to be aware of this when reading and listening to the coverage of contemporary health issues within the media as well as keeping our critical appraisal skills honed. Furthermore, there are many health related issues that do not get media attention and therefore do not make the headlines; how much consideration have you given to this?