It’s difficult to imagine a journal article and an editorial that could set the stage for what we intend to do on this site in 2015 better than this paper and this editorial in The BMJ this week – about problems with health related science news releases.

(It is ironic that I have criticized news releases by The BMJ itself for a long time, but have been happy to report that there has been improvement in recent months. But the focus of my criticism – news releases that made causal statements about correlational or observational research – was one of the foci of this research paper in The BMJ.)

The research paper summarized an analysis of nearly 500 press releases on biomedical and health related science coming from 20 leading universities in the UK in 2011.  The researchers also analyzed the peer-reviewed research papers, upon which the news releases were based, and nearly 700 news stories on the same topic covered by the news releases.  They found:

  • 40% of the press releases contained exaggerated advice, 33% contained exaggerated causal claims, and 36% contained exaggerated inference to humans from animal research.
  • When press releases contained exaggeration it was more likely that the news would too (58% for advice, 81% for causal claims, and 86% for inference to humans). But when press releases did not contain exaggeration, rates of exaggeration in news were only 17%, 18%, and 10%, respectively.
  • However, there was little evidence that exaggeration in press releases increased the uptake of news.

That last data point puzzles me, but all I have are anecdotes to throw up against this claim.

For example, the hundreds if not thousands of media messages that followed a University of Exeter news release earlier this year, leaping from a basic research finding about hydrogen sulfide to headlines and stories claiming that farts cure cancer and other diseases. All apparently emanating from the smell of a university news release.

We’ve seen many other examples of health-related news releases apparently increasing “the uptake of news.”

At any rate, the researchers concluded:

“Exaggeration in news is strongly associated with exaggeration in press releases. Improving the accuracy of academic press releases could represent a key opportunity for reducing misleading health related news.”

Ben Goldacre, Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and author of the book Bad Science, wrote an accompanying editorial that ended:

“If funding could be found, then extending this project for a further two years would offer a much larger prize: the discovery of whether an ongoing ranking, prominently presented in public, might change academic behaviour and create an environment where researchers finally act to prevent patients and the public being routinely misled.”

Well, as I announced yesterday, I do have two years of funding (hopefully more) that will allow us to start reviewing news releases and prominently displaying the resulting reviews publicly, with a hope of changing behavior and improving the public dialogue through one more avenue.

I asked two people who will be helping to lead the new effort to review news releases to comment on the study.

Earle Holland,  who retired as Assistant VP for Research Communications at Ohio State University, wrote me that he thought the big “take-away” statements from the paper were these:

  • “The blame—if it can be meaningfully apportioned—lies mainly with the increasing culture of university competition and self promotion, interacting with the increasing pressures on journalists to do more with less time.”
  • “If the majority of exaggeration occurs within academic establishments, then the academic community has the opportunity to make an important difference to the quality of biomedical and health related news.”
  • “What we do argue is that appropriate claims are a necessary starting point, that misleading claims can do harm, and that since many such claims originate within universities, the scientific community has the ability to improve this situation.”

Earle added his own comments:

“This study clearly found that press releases containing exaggerations were linked to major misinterpretations of the research in subsequent news media reports.  That just intensifies the need for public information officers to get their stories right in the first place.  Today, press releases routinely bypass traditional media and directly inform the public.

Press release writers have the same obligations of accuracy and precision as traditional reporters.  Shirking that responsibility can seriously harm the public’s understanding of what health and medical research means, as well as weaken the reputations of institutions doing the work.”

And my new fulltime managing editor (wow, how cool to have this kind of help) – Kevin Lomangino – wrote:

“For me, the takeaway from this study is that there are multiple messengers to blame when it comes to exaggeration in health care news stories. As we’ve shown at HealthNewsReview.org, journalists often need to do a better job of vetting scientific research in their stories. But according to these results, the exaggerations communicated by reporters are frequently already present in press releases put out by academic institutions. This suggests that press officers who write the releases, and the researchers who collaborate on them, are also key players when it comes to the promotion of misinformation.

The study authors make a great point, which is that if academic institutions are the ones initiating the introduction of misleading claims, then there’s a tremendous opportunity for them to improve the quality of health care news if they can change their ways. I think our new effort to review news releases will help with that transition, because it provides a level of accountability that’s been missing until now. I’m really excited to see that our instincts about the need for this service are being emphatically confirmed by these results.”

I can’t wait to get started, and to involve folks like Earle, Sharon Dunwoody, Joann Rodgers, A’ndrea Elyse Messer, Matt Shipman, Trudy Lieberman, Andrew Holtz, Bill Heisel, Sally James, Euna Lhee, Mandy Stahre, and many others.

This paper and this editorial set the stage for where we’re going to go in 2015. C’mon on board for the ride!

Addendum almost 2 hours after embargo for this BMJ paper broke:  BMJ-provided links still not working.  Their issue.  Not mine.  But it affects all of us.  But God help the journalist who breaks an embargo!  This is not good policy.

Addendum #2  – 4.5 hours after embargo broke;  BMJ-provided links still not working.  Look, I know it’s 4 in the morning in London when I write this.  But the BMJ has US offices, too.  Isn’t ANYONE aware?  Can’t anyone fix links after 4.5 hours? Journals send out embargoed news releases inviting journalists to write about the stuff in the news releases.  But they slap a strict embargo warning on users:  you can’t break this important news before 5:30 pm Central in the US on Tuesdays or else you will be denied future access.  Well, who gets slapped on the wrist when you invite coverage, offer links that are supposed to work at 5:30, and they’re still not working at 10 pm?  So we can write about it, but readers who want to scrutinize the complete underlying journal article can’t.  That’s a problem that needs to be fixed.

Addendum #3 – 9 hours after embargo broke, I received a Twitter message from The BMJ:  “Apologies links not working. Needed to change URLs at short notice yesterday.”  What?  And you couldn’t have notified anyone?)

Addendum on December 10: Other coverage of the research:

Addendum on December 19:

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