Some Australian media have been publishing inaccurate and conflicting information about vitamin D and safe sun exposure, research has found.
Researchers reviewed more than 200 articles published between 2000 and 2017 and found that many journalists encouraged abandoning sun safety messages and glorified sun exposure for the sake of vitamin D.
However, some journalists took the opposing view that the “vitamin D fad” has led to unnecessary tablets and tests.
The study comes as vitamin D deficiency is recognised as a growing problem in Australia, with up to 25 per cent of people found to be lacking the essential nutrient.
The researchers say the media has an important role in relaying public health messages and complex information in plain language.
As such, they’re encouraging scientists and health professionals to work with journalists to ensure media reports are accurate.
Dr Stephanie Blake says the articles reviewed often conflicted with Cancer Council guidelines on safe sun exposure, which are designed to protect the public.
“I think journalists may have been caught up in the idea that everyone knows about sun protection and safety, and may have been worried people didn’t necessarily know about the dangers of vitamin D deficiency.”
Dr Stephanie Blake
“So they were going out of their way to put that message out there – it was well intended, it just needs additional detail.”
If the poor quality reporting continues it could lead to health messages being ignored and create public mistrust of important information, she says.
A recurring theme found was that the health benefits of sun exposure outweighed the potential harm posed by skin cancer, with many articles giving strong support for the benefits of vitamin D supplements.
Others used sensational headlines to promote sun exposure or negative language to describe sun safety – such as “slip-slop-slap themselves into ill health”.
While some articles did discuss the negative health effects of excessive sun exposure, less than a third of all the articles mentioned UV levels when advising about sun exposure.
Newsprint articles were also found to overemphasise research in pilot or preliminary stages and make inappropriate conclusions based on the results of single studies, Dr Blake says.
Most of the articles were written before the Cancer Council published its guidelines in 2016.
These guidelines clarify a complex message, so the confusion the research found should be cleared up in future, Dr Blake says.
The council says for most people, adequate vitamin D levels are reached through regular incidental exposure to the sun.
“When the UV Index is three or above (such as during summer), most people maintain adequate vitamin D levels just by spending a few minutes outdoors on most days of the week,” it says on its website.
The research was completed by The University of New South Wales and The University of Notre Dame Australia.
It was published in the Australasian Journal of Dermatology on Monday.