Women Journalists Deeply Disappoint in One-Sided Coverage of Breast Implants

On the last day of Women’s History Month, my pride and pleasure in this celebration was diminished by the appearance of an article in Newsweek Magazine by two women journalists at the top of their profession, journalists who until now have always done wonderful work on women’s health issues.

Barbara Kantrowitz and Pat Wingert each have long, distinguished careers emblazoned with some of the most prestigious awards in the news profession. How then could they have produced “Chest Right,” an article intended to inform the public of what we need to know about getting breast implants? This news item is poorly researched, badly sourced and ill thought out, a far cry from the level of journalism we’ve come to expect from these women.

The article’s most obvious shortcoming is lack of balanced sourcing. Kantrowitz and Wingert quote three experts; all have personal stakes in seeing the breast implant business thrive. Not only are Drs. Laurie Casas, Richard D’Amico and Foad Nahai all practicing plastic surgeons, D’Amico is president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, and Nahai is president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

Had Kantrowitz and Wingert spoken to independent experts critical of breast implant safety, perhaps they could have managed to avoid buying into the world of manageable and acceptable risk so carefully crafted by the aesthetic industry. Shallow digging would have turned up extensive information on extremely high complication rates, the controversy around safety studies as well as the FDA’s ineffectual handling of breast implants, and the many, many tragic stories of women whose health and lives were harmed by implants. But none of these darker strands of the breast implant story found their way into the article.

The article makes critical omissions and gives just plain bad advice, of which here are just a few examples:

o The article tells us that silicone implants were restricted for 14 years, due to the FDA “responding to concerns from patients and some doctors.” This characterization minimizes the reality
of what actually happened by failing to mention the thousands of law
suits against implant manufacturers that lead to the FDA taking that
step, as well as the Dow Corning class action litigation that resulted
in the largest class action settlement in history up to that point.

o The article overlooks a key FDA safety requirement that all
potential implant recipients need to know: that doctors instruct
implant recipients to undergo biannual MRI exams to guard against
rupture.

o The article asserts that, “About a quarter of patients have some
kind of complication within the first two years after their first
surgery.” Yet studies have shown that the complication rate could be as high as 50 percent within three years, and rising as the implants age.

o The article urges women to do their research by listening to their
plastic surgeons, but never suggests that independent research is also
critical as the advice of the surgeons may be compromised by the
lucrative fees they receive for breast augmentation procedures.

Breast implants are the most popular cosmetic surgery in this country. Close to 350,000 women underwent the procedure in 2007. In a few short years, counting long-time implant recipients and cancer patients, the number of women with implants could exceed 10 million if the current growing demand for them continues. Yet, it is the most invasive of cosmetic surgeries, and the device one of the most defective, with terrible health and financial risks that have and will continue to harm a great proportion of implant recipients.

The ramifications of breast implants is not well understood by the public because news media, still male- dominated, have largely found this issue to be of little interest, even as they splash the story of steroids in sports on front pages and in endless news loops. This is why is it so disheartening when the topic of breast implants is mishandled by women journalists, particularly by the elite few who’ve managed to attain the positions of influence and respect that Kantrowitz and Wingert have. These journalists seem to have turned a deaf ear to the other side of the breast implant story, which is not one of recaptured youth or improved self-esteem, but one of tens of thousands of women suffering from debilitating illness, disfigurement, bankruptcy and families broken from the emotional and financial stress.

I am puzzled that the editors of Newsweek gave a pass to this article, sourced exclusively by experts who profit from implants. I am disappointed that this article appears less like news than a public relations piece bent on perpetuating the false public sense of manageable and minimal breast implant risk. Perhaps more disappointing than the story itself, however, is the failure of Kantrowitz and Wingert to pull out their finely honed journalism skills and just do a professional job on an important women’s health issue that has far too few champions in the media as it is.

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