News coverage of health issues gives a lopsided view of the risks faced by the public, a report says.
Did Sars get too many headlines?
It claims disproportionate coverage is given to diseases such as vCJD, which affect few people.
While issues such as smoking, which do cause widespread poor health, it says, get relatively little attention.
The study, by the King's Fund charity, analysed health reporting by the BBC, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Mail and the Guardian.
It compared the volume of reporting on specific health risks with the number of deaths attributed to those risks.
For example, 8,571 people died from smoking for each news story on the health
risks of smoking, compared with 0.33 deaths for each story on vCJD (the human variant of 'mad cow' disease).
The study concluded that the news agendas of the print and broadcast media were skewed heavily towards dramatic stories, rather than issues that statistically have a greater impact on health, such as smoking, obesity, mental health and alcohol misuse.
Health experts and policy makers interviewed for the study were almost universally dissatisfied with the way health-related matters were covered in the news media.
They said issues that posed minimal risks, such as the alleged link between the MMR
vaccine and autism, were given too much prominence over proven health risks.
Report author Roger Harrabin, who conducted the research on sabbatical from the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, said: "As journalists we need to give our audiences new news, not old news - but we shouldn't forget that policy-makers are often influenced by what they see in the media.
"The public may also alter their behaviour in ways that affect their health because of
information and advice they get from the media, such as parents refusing to let their children have the combined MMR vaccination after intense coverage linking the MMR jab with autism.
"Sometimes we in the media may actually contribute to an increase, rather than a decrease, in health risks."
Anna Coote, King's Fund health policy director who collaborated on the report, said: "Proven health risks rarely receive any media coverage while stories about the NHS in crisis and unusual hazards such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)
virus, which pose relatively little danger, can occupy the headlines for weeks on end.
"The media's own news values are bound to be paramount, but we would like to see the balance of news coverage brought into closer alignment with proven health
Dr Evan Harris MP, Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said: "The way alleged health risks and supposed new treatments are described in the media is not only distorting in itself and misleading for the public, but also has the potential for disastrous effects on public policy due to
the government's obsession with populism and presentation."
He added: "The problem lies not with science reporters and health specialists, who do an excellent job, but with the culture that bad news sells and reassurances do not."