Evaluating the results and their background in medical scientific papers and abstracts is complicated and time-consuming for healthcare providers, and more or less impossible without a medical education.
Therefore press releases, personal pitches, headlines, and abstracts become a primary source for the news. However, is this trustworthy?
With more than 140 medical, scientific papers being added to PubMed every hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, it is impossible to keep up with all news, and consequently, will valuable information may be lost, and useless information continues to live. Trying to keep up, we use databases, keywords, reliable sources, or web services presenting headlines and abstracts. Oh yes, and Twitter, Facebook, Google, Youtube, and much more. Journalists selecting the information to be displayed in the news stream must use the same methods, but are also receiving press releases and are being pitched from different sources.
Medical news often makes great and eye-catching headlines. Especially if the news contains some drama that could include the reader and viewer. This involves us all since if we are not patients now, we are potential patients in the future. However, journalists only rarely follow up when studies are replicated and thereby further examined and therefore miss that many findings are later disproved. Journalists tend to favour initial results over subsequent studies of the same issue.
These are some of the findings in a study published in PLOS ONE where researchers from France took a closer look at the news coverage of 4723 primary studies. Studies reporting no efficacy of the treatment were never covered in the news for any of these studies.
“Our study also suggests that most journalists from the general press do not know or prefer not to deal with the high degree of uncertainty inherent in early biomedical studies. Importantly, such biased newspaper coverage can have important social consequences.”.
Press Releases and Pitches
Press releases and personal pitches from sources are designed to catch the journalist or other news providers attention, with the hope of being presented in the news with subsequent public awareness of the content of the press release – and of the sender.
Trustworthy sources like universities are often mentioned in the coverage of the news, adding credibility to the information, or at least that is what is intended. However, a paper in the British Medical Journal tells us another story. The authors of the BMJ paper had examined 462 press releases from UK universities and found that 40% contained exaggerated advice, 33% contained exaggerated casual claim (like implying or stating that one thing caused another when the study only observed a correlation). 36% contained exaggerated interference to humans from animal research. This was of course often reflected in the news stories, in particular for the casual claims and extrapolating findings in animal research to humans.
You may wonder why the universities should make stronger claims than their research could account for. One reason could be to increase the uptake of the news, but then this study leaves them disappointed, as the BMJ paper found little evidence that exaggeration leads to increased uptake of the news. Perhaps it is for self-promotion, support for funding and next step, or to create awareness of the institution.
The authors of the paper emphasise that this should not be perceived as shifting the blame from the journalists to the press offices of the universities since press releases are most often written in a collaboration between the press office and the researcher(s). The latter knows the data and evidence best of all and make sure the statements in the press release is covered by the research.scientists. After all, many studies are provisional, and links between previous and future research and findings, and not suitable for being “today’s news.”
However, press releases also come from many other sources than academic institutions, like patient organisations, pharma, healthcare institutions and – providers, and from insurance companies, just to mention a few. Any such source may have another reason than just informing for this press release, a reason not disclosed. This may add bias to the content, both for what is told and what is untold. There is not necessarily anything wrong with such a press release, but it requires great critical faculty from any reader and especially anyone delivering the news. Unfortunately, many stories in the news are just presented from press releases without being critically examined by the journalist.
Finally, the British Medical Journal study mentioned above is only looking at correlations, not causality so in order not to fall into the same trap as many of the journalists please don’t over interpret the data! Next, we must remember that the majority of the 462 press releases in the study did not exaggerate. Last but not least we have to bear in mind that big claims and miracle cures are seldom right, even though “it was in the news.”
Kim Kristiansen, M.D.