Iced tea, kidney stones, and the study that never existed

This young woman is off to a great start in her science journalism career.

Taylor Kubota wrote on her blog, “Making Studies Out of Nothing At All.”  She begins:

“The other day someone recommended that I write about the connection between iced tea and kidney stones. These painful deposits of minerals and salt that form in the urinary tract are of particular interest to me because I am the daughter of a 10-time kidney stone sufferer. As soon as I started Googling about for more information on my possible story, I saw that my curiosity had company. Articles all over the web were citing a new study that said iced tea drinkers are at an increased risk for this painful ailment.

Unfortunately, that study everyone was so hyped about doesn’t exist.

It all started with a Loyola University news release. In it Dr. John Milner, a urologist and an assistant professor in Department of Urology at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, warns that iced tea contains high levels of oxalate* (a chemical known to cause calcium stones, which are the most common type of kidney stone) and that, therefore, drinking a lot of iced tea might increase an individual’s risk of developing kidney stones. (In case your wondering: Dr. Milner went on to say in the release that hot tea — which also contains oxalate — is less of a concern merely because people in the U.S. don’t consume as much of it as they do its iced counterpart.)

Altogether the information in the release was pretty interesting stuff and I actually learned a lot from it. What I didn’t learn was why Loyola University wrote it. So I did what I would think most journalists would do and I called the press office (the phone number for which was conveniently located at the top of the news release). I spoke with one of the media relations people and asked whether there was a study attached to this release or if it was just a helpful tip. I was told it was the latter and we said our goodbyes. That call of less than 2 minutes killed my story and gave life to this blog post.

As a reader of science journalism you deserve to know that it is (regrettably) common for reporters to rewrite press releases without doing any additional reporting.”

Indeed, Newsday reported: “People who drink iced tea may be putting themselves at greater risk for developing painful kidney stones, a new study indicates.”  Where’d they get that?  Probably from Healthday, which reported what we show you here:

Read Taylor Kubota’s entire post.  And join me in wishing her a great career in science journalism.  We need to find room for young journalists like her in a needy industry.

(Photo credit:  brendan-c via flickr)


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Kevin B. O'Reilly

August 17, 2012 at 5:03 pm

I don’t claim to be a perfect reporter, but I recall once getting a green light to cover a medical study touted as “new” at half a dozen or more news outlets. That’s also how it was described in the university news release. Yet when I finally got a copy of the study, it turned out to have come out months earlier, and not even in the most recent issue of the journal where it was published. That killed my “news” story, of course, but I was somewhat flabbergasted that so many other news organizations did not bother to check on the simplest thing — whether the “news” they were reporting was, in fact, new.

This case is even more egregious. With all of the plagiarism and fabricated journalism cases cropping up recently, I’ve got to wonder how much of this is driven by the relentless need to feed an insatiable news hole. It can’t go on like this. Can it?

Dan Keller

August 20, 2012 at 2:54 pm

I commend Taylor Kubota for her good instincts, which led her not to take the bait on the iced tea story. However, to be a good writer (science or otherwise), one must learn the difference between “your” and “you’re” and between “altogether” (not a word) and “all together.” And while I’m at it, writers all too frequently write the simple past tense of “to lead” as “lead” (a soft metal when pronounced with a short “e”). The past tense is “led.”

    Peter Cathcart

    August 26, 2012 at 7:39 pm

    “Altogether” most certainly is a word, though Taylor uses it incorrectly in this particular context.

Toni Shelton

August 31, 2012 at 10:20 am

@Dan Keller & Peter Cathcart: You’re my new favorite people! Thank you for doning the mantle of the ”grammar police”. I hate the common misuse of your/you’re (as well as other homophones), in this lackadaisical society. It’s my pet-peeve to see grammar rules ignored.