What Editorial Standards Should be Adopted by Newspapers in Relation to Letters that Contain Health Claims?

Thomas J Peto 1, 2, Sasithon Pukrittayakamee 1, 3, 4,
James J Callery 1, Weerapong Phumratanaprapin 3

  1. Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit, Faculty of Tropical Medicine,
    Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand
  2. Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health, Nuffield Department of Medicine,
    University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom
  3. Faculty of Tropical Medicine, Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand
  4. The Royal Society of Thailand, Dusit, Bangkok, Thailand

Correspondence to Weerapong Phumratanaprapin (MD),
Faculty of Tropical Medicine, Mahidol University, 420/6 Rajvithi Road, Ratchathewi, Bangkok, 10400, Thailand. Email: weerapong.phu@mahidol.ac.th


Newspapers have a responsibility to report the truth to their readers, and the trustworthiness of the print media remains crucial in our age of decentralized, social media and online commentary. Honest reporting of the evidence and the uncertainties around health claims are especially important as there may be serious consequences if incorrect information is disseminated. Letters to the Editor can fall into a grey area where the responsibility for statements are unclear.

Recently there have been examples of misleading claims printed in letters appearing in many local and English language newspapers in many countries. One letter to a newspaper in Thailand made incorrect statements about vaccine safety which, if believed, could potentially discourage infant vaccination and thereby place children at risk of preventable infectious diseases. Another letter contradicted Thailand’s national policy for malaria treatment with artemisinin combination therapies and advocated instead the use of unlicensed, unproven herbal remedies, which if followed could result in the mismanagement of a potentially fatal disease. Both articles risked causing harm and should not have been printed without qualification.

Improved editorial guidelines may help avoid such oversights in future. Such guidelines might include additional steps prior to publication to verify and fact-check health claims, the adoption of a risk-based approach before deciding whether the public interest is best served by publication, and consultation with relevant medical experts. The public deserve to read a range of opinions from readers, including on health matters, but there is an editorial responsibility to ensure in as far as is reasonable, that such claims are evidence-based, appropriately referenced, and accountable.

Keywords: Ethics, evidence-based medicine, malaria, media, Thailand, vaccination