The story was clear about what the new study suggests but what the limitations of the evidence are. As a result, readers get a clear message – clearer than in the competing WebMD story.
We can begin to do a better job of educating news consumers about the quality of evidence – what studies show and what they may not show. This story does a good job of making the distinctions clear.
The cost of aspirin is not in question.
Much better than the competing WebMD story, this story appropriately stated:
“People who said they took daily aspirin – whether ‘baby’ or adult strength – had a 16-percent lower risk of dying from cancer than non-users overall, Thun and his colleagues found.
For men, the difference came out to 103 fewer cancer deaths a year per 100,000 people; for women, the number was 42.”
The story acknowledged side effects such as serious stomach bleeds and pointed out that this study didn’t look at overall death rates or side effects.
This story put “considerable limitations” in the second sentence. It also later described “detection bias.” And it clearly pointed out:
“Because the study wasn’t a clinical trial, it’s hard to know if the findings can be chalked up to aspirin or if something else is at play.”
We wish the story hadn’t used the term “the effect was strongest” since this clearly suggests cause-and-effect was established by the study, which was not the case. But because the caveats about limitations were early, strong, and throughout, we’ll give the story the benefit of the doubt on this criterion.
No disease mongering.
The input from independent expert Dr. Kausik Ray was important. And it pointed out the recommendation of the US Preventive Services Task Force discouraging the use of aspirin “to stave off colorectal cancer in people at average risk for the disease.”
The WebMD story did a better job on this simply by including one line about “other strategies will also reduce the risk of cancer” – regular physical activity, healthy weight, not smoking.
The availability of aspirin is not in question.
The story noted other research in this field:
“Medical guidelines in the U.S. already urge people to take low doses of aspirin to prevent heart disease if the predicted benefits outweigh the risk of side effects, or if they have already suffered a heart attack.
Whether those recommendations should be broadened to include cancer prevention is still up in the air, however.
Earlier this year, an analysis of previous clinical trials showed that people on aspirin were less likely to die of cancer than those not on the medication, with a 37-percent drop in cancer deaths observed from five years onwards.
The new report, published Friday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, is based on real-life observations instead of experiments. It includes a decade’s worth of data from more than 100,000 men and women in the U.S., most over 60 and all of them non-smokers.”
It’s clear that the story did not rely on a news release.