Should Journalists Take Sides in the Medicalization Debate?
When I wrote a series of pieces recently about disease mongering, freelance health writer Kate Benson wrote me. Benson has worked in journalism for nearly 25 years at small and mid-sized dailies, including the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and The Selma Enterprise. She has worn multiple hats, including photographer, reporter, designer and assignments editor. Whenever she writes me, she has something interesting to say, and this time she was critiquing my take on whether reporters spend too much time making everyday problems seem like conditions that need medical treatment. I asked her to write a guest post on the topic. The first part is below. The second part will appear later in the week.
I know this will set me directly against many health journalists, not to mention some researchers, but I have some strong ethical and professional concerns about the concepts of “disease mongering” and “medicalization” and how they are used in journalistic circles. It seems the jury already has returned a verdict on whether too many diseases/conditions are “medicalized.” In my view, there needs to be an open conversation about these concepts that is not happening. So let’s make it happen.
We can start with the term disease mongering as a phrase. Calling someone a disease monger is little more than a way to shut down your opponents. How can someone make a strong counter argument when that sort of label is slapped on them?
At the same time, the term disease monger is pejorative and inflammatory. It has no more place in journalism than racial epithets or words that demean someone for their sexual orientation. An associated term, the “worried well,” is also pejorative and presumes that people have been scared into a state of anxiety by drug companies and the “disease mongering” journalists who reprint their press releases. Is there any evidence that this is really happening? Not that I have seen, and yet this term is used frequently as an accepted description for the average consumer.
Now to the concept of "medicalization.” What journalists need to realize is that this is not a concept where the debate has been settled. It is a term, instead, used to capture one point of view in an ongoing war over the role of medicine – both nonprofit and for-profit medicine – in society. This has been well described by Harvard medical history professor Dr. Allan M. Brandt.
Your response may be to tell me that I should be reading philosopher Ivan Illich or sociology professor Peter Conrad instead of Brandt. I have read them. The scientific literature doesn’t always support their assertions.
And that makes me wonder how many journalists who casually toss around the term "disease-mongering" have done their homework. How skeptically do they read the literature? And how open are they to the possibility that there are other equally valid points of view?
Accepting that disease mongering is a common and corrosive force is to take the point of view of an activist and not a journalist. It’s to adopt a stance and thereby run the risk of missing critical elements in this very important battle over the future of medical advancements.
Next: Health Writers Should Look for All the Vested Interests in Medicine
Photo credit: Melanie Tata via Flickr