Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lies You Are Told

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Want to know if the media is in a healthy, rigorous state? Can you trust the news you are consuming? The surest way to find out if journalism's pulse is beating strongly is by going to, of all places, the health pages or websites. And a warning: if you believe what you see on TV, especially in those dreadful "Your Health" segments, then I've got millions of bucks in a Nigerian bank that's all yours.

The TV segments are designed simply to grab your attention and hold it for a maximum of two minutes. In than time, flashing by are headlines, impossibly short clips from researchers, doctors and patients and a sign-off from a T'nT (go figure) blond with about as much expertise in medicine as I do in astrophysics. In depth, it ain't. But is it true? Not often.

If coverage of the latest "breakthroughs" is any example, then journalism is on life-support. Across the TV and radio networks, in bold headlines in national dailies around the world, and across the web – even the usually reliable BBC failed miserably – the three huge stories of the week centred on the "discoveries" of new drug treatments and new ways to treat dementia, memory loss and even Alzheimer's. I'll concentrate on one of those stories, the so-called new treatment for dementia. A study published in the journal, Neurology, announced that taking cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins may, may -- and I'm going to repeat it for a third time since the little word is often pronounced dead on arrival by irresponsible journalist who won't let it ruin a good story –- may cut the risk of dementia by half.

Even the British Alzheimer's Research Trust called the results "encouraging."

But hang on just one life-threatening minute. For a start, any journalist with a quarter of a brain and an ounce of honesty, knows that a medical story with that little three-letter word is not a story at all. At best, you can use it as a guide as to what direction certain research is going; at worst, burying it is a lie that offers false hope to millions of people.

But it gets worse. Even the shallowest whip around authoritative sites on the web will tell you that statins such as Lipitor and Crestor can have a number of devastating side effects -- including depression. memory loss and dementia. So they are probably absolutely useless for treating Alzheimer's and other related illnesses. Why wasn't that in any of the coverage? The truth often kills not only the messenger but also the message. And there's an even more worrying reason – it appears that journalists around the world were too lazy to look beneath the surface. That's usually where the real story sits.

And so, as a journalist, I feel shame and despair. You as a consumer should feel betrayal and outrage. What can you do ? Write to your newspaper or TV station and tell them what you think. Doing nothing will get you more "breakthroughs" and more severe cases of may-in-hiding.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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John Scully

John Scully has been a journalist for almost fifty years and has covered stories in seventy countries for major international news and current affairs organizations. His book, Am I Dead Yet? A Journalist's Perspective on Terrorism, was published in spring 2008 by Fitzhenry and Whiteside.

Go to John Scully’s Author Page