Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Oversimplified Diagnosis

This week I'm flying solo on my look at something that could use a little more detail in the news.

I have no doubt medical news is vastly important to provide. It can open a window into research happening close to home and around the world and it can inform about how to possibly stave off disease.

A lot of the time (especially in television news) the important information gets lost in profiles of disease survivors or fighters with slight mention about where to go for more information or prevention detail. The rest of the time you get a scary headline and scant detail about the true impact for you. This doesn't mean the constant research occurring or the studies being produced are misleading; that's for the doctors and scientists to decide. But without reporters going over all the research how can people be given an accurate story?

The latest to irk me was a headline about cell phones giving brain cancer to kids. The story mentions "...a 5.2-fold elevated risk of malignant brain tumour in children who begin using mobile phones before the age of 20 years..." but doesn't mention what you're multiplying 5.2 by. If the risk was one in 10-million it's not much of an increased risk. A one in five risk and now we're warranted with scary headlines.

People should know that cell phone use and the developing brain of teens is being studied and perhaps the research bears out a real risk but this story doesn't give that an accurate explanation. It also gets bogged down in stats about how many 12-19 year-old Canadians
use cell phones.

The trouble is; there are a lot of frightening headlines that seem misleading once you read through the whole story.

This one about alcohol and prostate cancer talks about the increased risk of developing the cancer but the last line of the story quotes one of the study's authors as follows: "This is just saying that (prostate cancer) is just another thing to be concerned about if you're a heavy drinker." So does drinking increase the risk of prostate cancer? It may. But so does a long list of other things.

Something else that can get lost in the lead idea of a story is context. This story about the number of Canadians living with cancer fails to mention if this kind of statistic has been tracked for decades, it doesn't show how the information proves more people are getting sick and how about some common sense: Canada's population is as large as ever and we're living longer than ever before. Wouldn't more people simply mean more of everything, including cancer?

One blog I'm in the habit of following is that of Mark Hamilton. He's got some of his own thoughts on how reporters can stop fear-mongering or burying the fact this study or that one might not really prove an increase in your chance of getting sick. He breaks down the basic formula for a medical story that caught his eye. (For those clicking on that link; pun intended.)

A book I recommend to anyone working in news, interested in medical stories or just plain interested in medicine is "Selling Sickness." It's more about prescription drugs and the advertising from drug companies but it gets into talk of drug studies. The studies can sometimes talk about increased risk but gloss over the fact the original risk was very small. A lot of that can not only be applied to any studies you see from drug companies but also medical stories. It goes for drug ads you might catch on American TV.

Canadian TV too if Conrad VonFinkenstein looks around for easy money:

"Moreover, the CRTC chairman said new sources of revenue -- such as allowing U.S.-style drug ads -- could be part of the solution. At present, those type of ads are not allowed in Canada."

That kind of knowledge is doubly important when a lot of medical news is just drug studies and spin from companies anyway.

My rant against fear-mongering headlines, about studies that sometimes mean very little, now done I hope this allows someone else to read such stories with a more discerning eye. And I'd hope reporters spend a few minutes either digging through the facts and figures of medical studies and reports or explaining to their editors and producers why the story isn't actually a story.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

And the sky is still blue

The Alberta Enterprise Group continued its fight to keep the Edmonton City Centre Airport (ECCA) open, this week.

They loaded up two planes with reporters and photographers and held what was called the Great Airport Race. The plan? The two planes would take off from the ECCA, fly up toward Westlock, Alberta and head back to Edmonton. One plane would land at the City Centre and the other would touch down just south of the city at the Edmonton Internationl Airport (EIA).

The reporters et al. would then race by cab to downtown Edmonton. You'd think the name of the airports alone would have told you which one was closer. One is named "City Centre" which leads me to believe it would be in or near a downtown area.

Not surprisingly, it took longer to taxi across the larger tarmac of the EIA and then get a cab ride up from Leduc. It also is not surprising to learn the longer cab ride cost more money. The Edmonton Journal had a balanced take on the race.

I don't doubt a lot of business dealings happen in downtown, since there are lots of office buildings and the Alberta Legislature. So I get why some people want the smaller airport to remain.

Unless they're coming from outside Alberta and likely landing at the EIA anyway. Or if their dealings happen at a business in the south end or somewhere not downtown. I do, however, like the idea of all important business people landing and only having 20 minutes to get to meetings. If that's the case, I wonder if we shouldn't close the City Centre Airport just to help them with time management.

There's also the constant mention of the life and death situation landing air ambulances at the International vs. City Centre poses. I am pretty sure Edmonton hospitals have helipads. The Mazankowski (whenever it opens) is even supposed to have one. I bet heart patients are among urgent cases we keep hearing in the threats.

o conclude my rant against the most obvious of outcomes to a race, here are other things closer to downtown than the Edmonton International Airport, you know, in case the City Centre Airport is closed:

The Greyhound station - Businesses could bus it instead of flying to the EIA.

VIA station - It's already in the city, but only works for people east or west of Edmonton.

Roads - People could drive if the Edmonton International was such a hassle.

And as a bonus - webcams and phones. I hear stuff can be accomplished over these sometimes.

If you're on Twitter you can follow this discussion under the hashtag #ecca. It will be (mostly) free of me rolling my eyes and have comments from lots of smart people.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Economic spin indeed

I recently wrote about how I found it misleading for news stories about the 2009 Rexall Edmonton Indy to not mention the projected deficit for this year's race. It was nice, however, to see the mention of last year's (taxpayer covered) $5.3-million deficit. Now I've just got an issue with the race organizer, Northlands.

After last year's deficit became known, and Edmonton taxpayers were reminded they were on the hook, Northlands talked about the economic spin-off of the race. They claimed the race put $80-million dollars into the Edmonton economy.

Those numbers were quickly questioned. The problem (or the good thing for Northands) is that it's hard to nail down (dispute) a spin-off number because you're guessing at how much people paid for a hotel (if they used one) a rental car (or taxis, transit), shopping and meals. It should be noted, however, Montreal race organizers only claimed a $75-million dollar benefit from their race.

Soon after my rant I wonder if Northlands even cares about running in the red. There's a projected deficit of more than $1-million for this summer's race and instead of trying to cut costs they're paying to put Alex Tagliani in the driver's seat.

It seems to me that if a driver can't find anybody to back him financially he may not be the draw that's going to help you turn a profit, or break even.

You may have to spend money to make money, but it will be interesting to see if spending money where nobody else cared to will help the 2009 Rexall Edmonton Indy, make money.

Or maybe the idea is for Edmonton taxpayers to buy a ticket and cheer on Tagliani. After all, their tax rate depends on it.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Going Green

I had the time to check out the "Going Green Eco Expo" Saturday. It was a pretty good mix of big and small green ideas.

Personally, I would have been better off as a house-owner since a number of the booths related to home heating, decoration and renovation.

But it's a trade show so you can always put your name in for draws. I certainly did as I like free stuff.

My Flickr account has a photo rundown on what I saw.

While I was there the crowd seemed eager to see what was available for their homes and their lives. And the Segway guys seemed to always have someone in need of a test ride.

The sunny Saturday weather may have kept some people away from the climate-controlled Butterdome, and there was a rally or two planned, but this is the kind of event that is a success if even a few people find some new ideas to try.