Spinning trial results in news releases and subsequent news coverage

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A paper by a French team in PLoS Medicine, “Misrepresentation of Randomized Controlled Trials in Press Releases and News Coverage: A Cohort Study,” shows once again “the tendency for press releases and the associated media coverage of randomized clinical trials to place emphasis on the beneficial effects of experimental treatments.”  More from the paper:

“This tendency is probably related to the presence of “spin” in conclusions of the scientific article’s abstract. This tendency, in conjunction with other well-known biases such as publication bias, selective reporting of outcomes, and lack of external validity, may be responsible for an important gap between the public perception of the beneficial effect and the real effect of the treatment studied.

…previous work showed that exaggerated and inappropriate coverage of research findings in the news media is linked to inappropriate reporting of press releases. Our study adds to these results showing that “spin” in press releases and the news is related to the presence of “spin” in the published article, namely the abstract conclusions. Additionally, our work highlights that this inappropriate reporting could bias readers’ interpretation of research results.

Consequently, reviewers and editors of published articles have an important role to play in the dissemination of research findings and should be particularly aware of the need to ensure that the conclusions reported are an appropriate reflection of the trial findings and do not overinterpret or misinterpret the results.”

The work of HealthNewsReview.org for the past 6.5 years has shown a clear pattern of stories that emphasize benefits and minimize or ignore potential harms.  It is our wish and hope that, in the future, we will be able to launch a parallel project to review and evaluate the content of news releases to broaden our analysis of the messages about health care interventions that flood the American public every day.

(Photo credit:   © Copyright Oxana Maher and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)


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Greg Pawelski

September 12, 2012 at 12:15 pm

“…previous work showed that exaggerated and inappropriate coverage of research findings in the news media is linked to inappropriate reporting of press releases.”

Has it ever been thought that exaggerated and inappropriate coverage of research findings may come about by peer-reviewed articles with their pre-conceived bias? Peer review lacks consistent standards. Recent disclosures of fraudulent or flawed studies in professional medical journals have called into question the merits of their peer-review system. Passing peer-review is not the scientific equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. The major flaws in the system of peer-reviewed science is reason enough why journalists should avoid relying on the latest, greatest studies for medical news coverage.