Problems with news coverage of early release of ASCO abstracts

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This is a troubling trend. has now reviewed four stories based on abstracts for the American Society for Clinical Oncology meeting that won’t even be held until next week.

Woloshin & Schwartz wrote the excellent paper pointing out the flaws of drawing conclusions from presentations at scientific meetings, but this stuff hasn’t even been presented yet!

An ASCO “presscast” on May 14 drew special attention to just seven of the more than 4,000 abstracts released by ASCO two weeks in advance of the meeting. The four stories we’ve reviewed on covered three of those seven highlighted abstracts.

So if you think that all this news coverage is driven by independent vetting by journalists – think again.

The most troubling example is the following – because of the quality reputation of the newspaper and the reporter involved and because of the influence of this paper.

A Wall Street Journal story wasn’t critical enough of a genetic test for colon cancer, according to reviewers, including former Washington Post health section editor Craig Stoltz, who wrote a clear and powerful review. He noted that a few hours after the not-critical-enough WSJ print story appeared, the WSJ health blog posted this:

Genomic Health was trading higher on data suggesting its test for early-stage colon cancer may help patients and doctors decide whether they needed chemotherapy after their tumors are removed with surgery. Read the WSJ story on the colon-cancer test here. (referring readers back to the print story.)

If, as was claimed in another WSJ story, this early release of ASCO news releases was supposed to prevent “past problems that resulted in trading on market-moving information before it was released to the general public,” we wonder how well this policy is working.

We do know that the ASCO publicity machine worked.

We’ve also reviewed two other non-ASCO stories recently that let companies get away with making claims about research progress but without having all the data in hand. The message was sort of, “Trust us, this is really solid data, but we can’t give it to you now because it’s going to be presented in a month.”

One was by the New York Times on the prostate cancer drug Provenge.

One was another Wall Street Journal story on the anti-clotting drug Brilinta.

Readers beware: what you’re getting in these jump-the-gun stories may not be the whole story, may not have all the data, and may not scrutinize the quality of the evidence. Look for independent, non-conflicted voices in such stories but even then it may be difficult for other experts to comment because they haven’t seen all the data.

This is a troubling journalistic trend – for all the reasons given.

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Jody Schoger

May 22, 2009 at 9:36 am

I would love to see this information receive the kind of play the ASCO abstracts did. You could see the echo in the papers the following week and on Twitter. Thank you.