NBC Ignores Challenges to New Cholesterol Guidelines

It was all over the news last week. “One in three” Americans should be taking statins, cholesterol-lowering drugs, according to American Heart Association’s newly developed risk factors calculator. The calculator was designed to estimate one’s risk for cardiovascular disease, based on multiple factors, instead of just using cholesterol levels. 

ABC, NBC, and CBS all gobbled up the news, warning that “many more Americans [would be] taking these drugs.” The New York Times also featured on its front page the new health alert.

 But just five days later, some experts in the medical community have criticized the risk calculator for overestimating the actual number of people who could benefit from these drugs. So, having hyped the original report, would the networks cover the follow-up story?

Two of them did. ABC devoted 1 minute, 29 seconds on Nov.18 to updating the story; CBS spent 2 minutes, 3 seconds to their own update the same day. The New York Times ran a front-page headline Nov. 18: “Risk Calculator for Cholesterol Appears Flawed,” as well as an editorial, “Cholesterol Guidelines Under Attack,” the next day.

The Times, in its article, called the challenge to the guidelines “a major embarrassment to the health groups,” explaining that the “apparent problem prompted one leading cardiologist, a past president of the American College of Cardiology, to call on Sunday for a halt to the implementation of the new guidelines.”

Similarly, CBS and ABC provided updates to their stories. CBS News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jon Lapook: said “Two researchers … warn the calculator may suggest statin treatment for about twice as many middle-aged Americans as actually may significantly benefit from it.”  ABC similarly backtracked on its previous statements.

Meanwhile, NBC couldn’t even be bothered to spend even a second correcting its previous broadcasts. In fact it doubled down on the original news.

One week ago, on Nov. 12, NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams hyped the original guidelines as a “big story in medical news.” He noted that “one in four of all Americans over the age of forty” take cholesterol-lowering statins. “Today,” he intoned, “the first new guidelines in a decade about how they should be prescribed and the news could be a game changer and could result in many more Americans taking these drugs.”

The next morning on “Today,” Savannah Guthrie reported, “The new guidelines are likely to lead to a jump in statin prescriptions.”

But on Nov. 18, the morning the Times ran the front-page article questioning the guidelines, “Today” was still treating them as uncontested. Hosts Natalie Morales and Al Roker had Keri Peterson, a doctor and contributor to Women’s Health magazine on to explain the guidelines.

“When it comes to taking care of your health,” Morales said, “there are certain numbers to live by but with new guidelines and studies coming out all the time it can get a little bit confusing.” Peterson said, “Now, last week the guideline recently changed for the management of cholesterol and is now advised by the American Cardiology Association that four groups be treated with statin.” She went on to explain the guidelines, never mentioning the challenges to them, as Roker and Morales nodded along.

Whether the original guidelines stand or fall, NBC didn’t tell the whole story, and that’s journalistic malpractice.

Kristine Marsh
Kristine Marsh
Kristine Marsh is a staff writer/analyst for the Media Research Center's Culture and Media Institute.