How the Media Misreports Severities

Headlines may sometimes cause unnecessary concerns

Every few months, the media reports on a new major illness allegedly posing serious threats to the general public. In the past, these healthcare concerns have ranged from swine flu to Ebola to the Zika virus, all of which have at times been projected by the media to be much more dangerous and uncontained than was realistically determined.

While some may perceive this misreporting as a scare tactic conjured by the media, it can also simply arise from the media’s need to continuously produce and reproduce stories of interest. After a story is initially projected onto its audience, further alternative angles are typically explored to keep the topic interesting and generating additional, relevant articles. These sequential stories then increase the public’s familiarity with the topic, and ultimately their concerns surrounding it.

The Sunscreen Example

As another example, while it is true that fertility rates have plummeted over the past few decades, recent reports claiming that the chemicals regularly used in sunscreen products are weakening male fertility have not yet been backed with substantial enough evidence to be verified. Chemicals are found in thousands of everyday products, but many popular sources including CNN, The Weather Channel and Headlines & Global News have perhaps exaggerated that sunscreen’s impact on human sperm should warrant public distress.

“The effect of sunscreen on men has been known since 2014. The primary offending ingredients are called BP-2 or 4OH-BP and had a 30% reduction in fertility,” explained Phillip Petree, author of “The Man Puzzle.” “What’s not known from the research is whether the chemicals kill off ‘sperm in waiting’ or the process of creating sperm.”

A team of researchers at the University of Copenhagen recently published their findings that many ultraviolet (UV) filters commonly used in sunscreens sold in the United States and Europe could potentially stop semen from functioning properly. The researchers explained that they believe sunscreen can impair sperm function by seeping into the skin’s pores and ultimately spreading throughout the rest of the body, causing disruptions to the body’s endocrine system.

“Male infertility is on the rise,” commented Draion M. Burch, DO, official sexual health and wellness advisor for Astroglide. “We know that filters used in sunscreens to absorb ultraviolet light can also be absorbed through the skin. This causes endocrine disruptions leading to poor sperm quality.”

To determine these effects, researchers tested sperm cells in a buffer solution that simulated the environment within the female fallopian tubes. After their testing of 29 of the 31 UV filters while focusing on the sperm-specific cation ion channel, called CatSper, the research team was able to determine that this channel binds to female progesterone to control the sperm cell’s fertilization functions (i.e. sperm motility). Helping them to arrive at this conclusion, after analyzing urine and sperm samples, the research team found UV-filtering chemicals in almost all urine samples and some blood samples.

Insufficient Evidence

Although the filters were found to be present in the test’s urine and blood samples, the testing methods used provided an unrealistic scenario. During their study, the researchers put the sperm cells and filters directly in contact with one another. In reality, sperm and chemical filters would not have this type of direct contact, and thus the study presents unrealistic results.

“Nothing has been confirmed yet, and no one has shown that if someone puts sunscreen on their skin that it affects sperm. However, they know effects exist if sunscreen is dumped on the sperm itself,” commented Philip Werthman, MD, urologist and director of the Center for Male Reproductive Medicine and Vasectomy Reversal in Los Angeles. “Everybody’s craving headlines, but you don’t release this type of information until there’s enough evidence.”
Werthman further suggested that additional research be conducted on fertile men who use sunscreen directly on their skin over a period of time, where sperm function is tested after use in proper factions.

Impacts of Healthcare Dramatization

With a high percentage of Americans engaging a variety of social media channels on a daily basis, healthcare information circulating the web can have vast impacts. Not only can the public perceive these mediated messages very literally, but they will also likely use this information to guide their health and lifestyle choices.

“What the Internet, and particularly social media networks and smartphones have allowed is organizing – of groups, movements, social networks – that have a lot of these sentiments, to spread misconceptions wide and fast,” explained Heidi Larson, a medical anthropologist who began an initiative called the Vaccine Confidence, in an interview with Humanosphere.1

The Internet’s power over people’s beliefs about health is exemplified by her initiative, used to monitor immunization misinformation and concern. When the public believes vaccines are dangerous to their children’s health due to what the media has stated, they will be far less likely to immunize their children. However, by not vaccinating children numerous other health issues can arise later, proving extremely unfavorable and costly.

Digital misinformation is a serious threat in the United States, and if patients have serious concerns about a new piece of information expressed through the media they should contact their healthcare provider or another healthcare professional to decipher fact from fiction. If all mediated messages simply become internalized as true, it could prove extremely detrimental to the public’s overall wellbeing.


1. Humanosphere. Digital misinformation poses covert threat to public health.

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