'Evening News' Milked Tragedies to Scare Viewers on Depression Drugs

     Looking for factual medical reporting that avoids milking tragedy to create hype?  If you’ve made an appointment to watch the CBS “Evening News,” you may want to get a second opinion.


    While all three broadcast networks touched on the FDA’s new “black box” warning label for patients up to age 25 on popular prescription depression medications, CBS’s treatment of the story laid out the heaviest dose of raw emotion and sensationalism.


     “How in the hell do I tell a kid that his father committed suicide!” widow Suzanne Gonzalez demanded in a clip Couric aired during the opening teaser to the December 13 “Evening News.”


    “At an emotional hearing some family members said” new warnings labels on anti-depressant medication “come too late,” Couric noted later in the program as she introduced correspondent Sharyl Attkisson’s story on how the FDA “is ordering new warning labels” on prescription antidepressants such as Paxil and Zoloft.


     “FDA advisors heard angry and very personal stories from a room full of people,” noted Attkisson as she cued up two sound bites from Gonzalez, who accused the FDA of “ruining my life, my daughter’s life, my son’s life.”


     Nearly 30 seconds into the story, Attkisson gave her audience the underlying facts, reporting that the FDA was extending so-called “black box” warnings on depression drugs for patients up to age 25, based on “new analysis” that showed a doubling of suicidal behavior in young adults.


      Attkisson did feature a woman who said “antidepressants gave me back my life and probably very well” saved it, but the correspondent failed to feature any doctors or psychiatrists on camera, choosing to summarize their arguments briefly at the close of her story.


     “Doctors say there’s a balance, that antidepressants are life-saving as long as the right patients get them and are carefully watched by psychiatric professionals,” Attkisson noted.


     By contrast, NBC’s “Nightly News” and ABC’s “World News with Charles Gibson” gave less emotional accounts of the story.


     While ABC reporter John McKenzie also aired a clip of Suzanne Gonzalez blaming the FDA for her husband’s death, he also noted many medical experts argue antidepressants are “essential” to treatment for many patients. McKenzie aired testimony from two women who benefited from antidepressant medication and from one woman who worried that “any additional black box warning runs the risk of making the effective treatments less available for many depressed patients.”


     On the December 13 “Nightly News,” NBC anchor Brian Williams opted to consult NBC’s top doc rather than air a full story.


     Rather than hyping a negative storyline from the development, Williams asked NBC chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman, “who is this good news for and bad news for?”


     Snyderman told Williams while most psychiatrists argue the “use of antidepressants can keep people from committing suicide,” that she thinks the medical and political controversy over warning labels “is one of those debates that’s going to keep going on and on and on.”