Another day, another slew of misleading media messages on observational study

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I know you’re probably tired of reading about it. Frankly, I get a bit weary of writing about it. But as long as journalists continue to use the wrong language to describe observational studies, I’m going to keep plugging away. This recurring flaw was one of three I identified in a popular blog post last week, “How the News Media May Hurt – Not Help – Health Literacy Efforts.”

Observational studies can’t establish cause-and-effect so it is simply inaccurate to use active, causal verbs to describe their findings. So when stories report that “A new study shows that women who drank more than three cups of coffee per day had a 20% lower risk of developing basal cell carcinoma than women who drank less than one cup a month, ” they need to avoid using causal language in their stories.

Coffee Fights Common Skin Cancer,” blares a WebMD headline.

Three cups of coffee a day to help keep skin cancer away?” asks MSNBC, which at least provided this caveat in the story:

“The study found an association, not a direct cause-effect link. Further research is needed to confirm the findings and investigate how coffee may act to reduce skin cancer risk.”

But then it complicated/confused the issue by saying:

“Drinking coffee did not reduce the risk of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, the study found.”

This study can’t prove whether coffee reduced risk or not.

Coffee Lowers Risk Of Skin Cancer Basal Cell Carcinoma,” announced Medical News Today.

Coffee cuts skin cancer risk,” stated the Washington Post

The Huffington Post hedged its headline, “Coffee May Keep World’s Most Common Cancer At Bay, New Research Shows.

This is one case where these stories may have been better off just copying the American Association for Cancer Research news release – a practice we generally don’t support. But at least the AACR news release said the only thing you really can say:

Coffee consumption associated with decreased risk for basal cell carcinoma.

That’s right: that’s all you can say: ASSOCIATED WITH…not “fights…helps keep away…lowers risk of…or cuts risk.”

If that’s too boring, then don’t report the story because otherwise you’re simply wrong.

We offer a primer on this very topic to help journalists do a better job on this.

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Ken Leebow

October 25, 2011 at 10:18 am

There’s cartoon for that …