Health News Review

The journal Evidence-Based Medicine recently published an editorial, “Journals should lead the way in improving medical press releases,” by Dr. Joshua Fenton of the University of California, Davis.

As one who has written frequently about flaws in journal news releases,* I am pleased to hear another voice call for change.

Excerpts of his editorial:

While it is tempting to blame journalists for shoddy medical news coverage, academic researchers, their institutions and journals must share the blame. For scientists, news coverage is an opportunity to frame their research in a favourable light for the public and colleagues. Meanwhile, development and fund-raising exigencies demand that institutions generate public enthusiasm about scientific accomplishments, and medical editors are motivated to maximise the impact of the research published in their journals. Thus, researchers, institutions and journal editors share a common motivation to maximise press coverage of new medical research.

Not surprisingly researchers and their institutions commonly collaborate on press releases to promote news coverage of new medical studies, and many journals issue press releases independently. Press releases increase the odds that a study will receive news coverage and influence the content of eventual press coverage. Alarmingly, in the guise of original reporting, many press releases issued by academic institutions appear verbatim on newspapers and websites with nothing to notify readers that the text is nothing more than a press release.

In light of the compelling personal and institutional motivations for issuing exaggerated press releases, what might investigators, institutions and journals do to improve news coverage of medical studies? Some have suggested that academic press releases should explicitly explain the limitations of the reported studies and should quantify both benefits and harms of interventions in absolute (not only relative) terms when feasible. Critics have also urged investigators and institutions to consider foregoing press releases if a study’s immediate public health implications are uncertain, as is the case for most conference abstracts and many animal studies.

These insightful suggestions, however, do not adequately address the countervailing motivations for researchers, institutions and journals to issue exaggerated or misleading press releases. What is needed is a fundamental shift in investigators’ and institutions’ sense of obligation and responsibility when considering the issuance of press releases. Here is where major biomedical journals could take a leading role.

Fenton urges journals to ensure that their own news releases “are reserved for studies with immediate public health importance and that the research findings are framed with appropriate caution.”

But he also urges journals to help establish consensus guidelines on news releases by academic institutions.

*  Some past posts on news releases by journals and by academic institutions:

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