Hype, hope and headlines

Last night I went to a fascinating discussion organised by Progress Educational Trust and the Science Journalism Department at City University looking at the way that new developments in fertility treatment are reported in the press. The debate was initially sparked by a letter to The Times written by fertility specialists Professor Nick Macklon and Professor Siladitya Bhattacharya about the reporting of fertility-related stories in the media and the impact these can have on patients. The regular bombardment of stories of advances in fertility treatment that are allegedly going to improve success rates and transform the future can make it difficult for patients to separate hype from reality.

The discussion started with a ten-minute presentation by each of the three speakers for the evening, beginning with Simon Fishel who is managing director of CARE and who had come in for some criticism for hailing an unproven new approach as a “the most exciting breakthrough we’ve had in probably thirty years”.  Fishel made the point that any new advance would always be unproven at first and suggested that a baby was “all the proof that is needed”. He explained that waiting to have the gold standard of evidence would simply take too long for most fertility patients who needed help right away, not many years down the line.

Fishel was followed by Professor Nick Macklon from Southampton who painted a picture of the couple who had just been through unsuccessful treatment and who were facing a crisis, but were then presented with hope by a newspaper article claiming that a new breakthrough treatment could offer success when in reality this was completely unproven. He said that patients were paying the price and that journalism needed to be more discerning.

The final speaker was Dr Hannah Devlin, Science Editor at The Times, who began by explaining why human interest fertility stories had all the ingredients to “set the heart of the news editor racing”. She discussed why it was important to report on developments as they emerged, which might be well before there was the gold standard level of evidence, but admitted that ‘breakthrough’ was a word she tried to avoid. She said that the time pressures of a daily paper could make it difficult for journalists, and that sometimes the mere fact that everyone else was covering a story made it news in itself.

During the question and answer session that followed, much of the discussion focused on the idea of responsibility – the responsibility of the scientist, of the press officer, of the journalist and of the clinician. A question from Stuart Lavery of IVF Hammersmith made the point that with so much of IVF carried out in the private sector, there was often a marketing element to stories of new fertility advances.

From the patient perspective, the evening raised many issues. Yes, of course we want to be informed about any new advances, but we need news stories about these to be balanced and fair. We need them to cut through the hype and to present us with a realistic idea of how helpful this would be to us as patients today. In an industry where everyone seems happy to keep taking our money as long as there is any sliver of a chance of success, honesty has never been more important.


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