Medical journalists, heal thyselves!

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Pick up any newspaper or magazine and you can read about the latest scientific breakthroughs in cancer, Alzheimer’s or heart disease. Just keep in mind that what you are reading is probably not true.

The research was done just as reported. The results were written up just as the newspaper article states, and the quotes from the scientific researchers are accurate. Unfortunately, the odds are high that the research does not mean what the authors would like you to think it means, and the reason points to a fundamental failing of medical journalism.

Medical journalists are supposed to interpret the findings of recent medical publications and present them to the general public in ways that they can understand. They are supposed to provide context for the discovery, explaining what it might mean for disease treatment or cure. Yet, they rarely do. Instead, they simply copy the press release.

Most people are unaware that scientists issue press releases about their work and they are certainly unaware that medical journalists often copy them word for word. Instead of presenting an accurate representation of medical research, medical journalists have become complicit in transmitting inaccurate or deceptive “puff pieces” designed to hype the supposed discovery and hide any deficiencies in the research.

Imagine if a journalist reviewing the newest Ford cross-over vehicle didn’t bother to drive the car, but simply copied the Ford brochure word for word. Could you rely on the journalist’s evaluation? Of course not. Yet that is precisely what medical journalists are doing each and every day.

A paper in a recent issue of Annals of Internal Medicine confirms this disturbing trend. The paper, Press Releases by Academic Medical Centers: Not So Academic?, by Woloshin, and colleagues finds:

Of all 113 releases about human studies … [f]orty percent reported on inherently limited studies (for example, sample size <30, uncontrolled interventions, … or unpublished meeting reports). Fewer than half (42%) provided any relevant caveats… Among the 87 releases about animal or laboratory studies, most (64 of 87) explicitly claimed relevance to human health, yet 90% lacked caveats about extrapolating results to people… Twenty-nine percent of releases (58 of 200) were rated as exaggerating the finding’s importance… Almost all releases (195 of 200) included investigator quotes, 26% of which were judged to overstate research importance… Although 24% (47 of 200) of releases used the word “significant,” only 1 clearly distinguished statistical from clinical significance. All other cases were ambiguous …

Why is this a problem? The harm extends beyond the obvious point that it is deceptive, and a failure of medical journalists to do their job, which is to interpret the accuracy and relevance of scientific publications when writing about them. Because medical journalists credulously publish press release as if they were true, they are constantly publishing conflicting reports, contributing to the public’s distrust of medical research. Each day seems to bring a new report of a food, or a drug that will prevent or cure cancer. Within a week or a month or a year, the journalists are reporting that that food or drug does not prevent or cure cancer.

To the public, it looks like medical researchers are constantly making mistakes. Today they claim that a food will prevent cancer. Next month, the same food will be found to cause cancer. In reality, medical research never demonstrated either claim, but medical journalists reported preliminary findings or flawed research as if they were definitive even though that was untrue.

The Annals of Internal Medicine has done an important service in bringing this disturbing practice to light. You can’t believe what you read about medical research in newspapers and magazines because medical journalists are simply copying press releases, not analyzing the research for accuracy or relevance. Therefore, in the interest of accuracy and relevance, I must disclose an important caveat to this important scientific paper. In what surely is an unintentional irony, The Annals of Internal Medicine publicly unveiled the paper and its findings by issuing a press release.

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