At least the Post, unlike CNN, managed to slip in a few caveats about the research in its 270-word snippet of a story. And it didn’t make any questionable claims about the health effects of omega-3s. However, the story lacked a clear explanation of the potential benefits and offered no independent perspective. Both would have been helpful here.
We recognize that this feature, Quick Study, is meant to be a short summary of research for the busy reader. And we appreciate the standard disclaimer the feature carries at the end, which says: “conclusive evidence about a treatment’s effectiveness is rarely found in a single study. Anyone considering changing or beginning treatment of any kind should consult with a physician.” Nevertheless, even tiny information nuggets like this one need to provide key details about the research and context. If there’s not enough room for those things, editors should think hard about whether the story is worth running at all. Does this help readers – or just add more background noise in the daily drumbeat of health care news?
The cost of fish is not in question.
The story tells us individuals with lower omega-3 levels “scored lower on cognitive tests measuring such things as memory, problem solving, abstract thinking and multi-tasking.” But how much lower were the scores and did they indicate a meaningful difference in how these people functioned? The story doesn’t say.
The harms of eating fish are not in question – although the story could have mentioned concerns with mercury in some fish at some levels of consumption.
The story mentions some limitations: “Most participants were white. Testing and measurements were done once, providing no data for comparison over time or to determine any link to dementia.”
We’ll call this satisfactory, but the story didn’t get to the heart of the matter the way the competing HealthDay coverage did. The key issue is that this kind of study can’t show whether it was the omega-3s, or some factor or combination of factors associated with higher omega-3 intake, that was responsible for the benefits.
No disease mongering.
No independent source was quoted. An extra two dozen words may have done the trick.
There was no discussion of alternatives (such as exercise, mental stimulation) to omega-3s for preserving cognitive function.
The availability of fish and fish oil is not in question.
Previous research has suggested possible benefits of fish and other components of a healthy diet on cognitive function during aging. This story didn’t mention any of that research.
We can’t tell to what extent this story may have relied on a press release, so we’ll call it not applicable.