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Of Mice and Women: News Release Dupes Media on Rodent Fertility Treatment

The following is a guest post by Kevin Lomangino, managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org. He tweets as @Klomangino

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If you haven’t heard, HealthNewsReview.org is paying more attention to news releases these days.

Behind the scenes here, we’ve been quietly reviewing health care-related news releases in the same way we review news stories.

We’ve banked about a dozen of these reviews so far, and we hope to publish them some time in April when our entire site gets a makeover and relaunch. (You can read more about our big plans here.)

In the meantime, I wanted to share snippets from a recent news release review that demonstrate what this new initiative is all about.

Reviewers Earle Holland and Christopher Kim evaluated a release issued by the University of Adelaide, Australia that made a bold claim about a new fertility treatment:

 

 

 

 

 

 

The release explains, reasonably enough, that obesity is associated with a litany of fertility-related problems and can hinder the ability to conceive.

And in their “breakthrough” research, the release tells us, University researchers administered certain compounds that “restored egg quality, embryo development and mitochondrial DNA to levels equivalent to those of a healthy mother. Effectively, the problem was fully reversed.”

But our review team found a hole in the release’s tale of scientific discovery and therapeutic innovation: There was no mention of the word “mice.”

Our reviewers noted that “the release talks about damage that can be ‘passed from a mother to her children’ — not from a MOUSE mother to her MOUSE children.'” In fact, they added, “The release clearly equates the findings to human women and their children.  Moreover, it goes even further to suggest such changes can be corrected, although no human trials have even begun. This is deceptive.”

The closest this release gets to mentioning mice is several paragraphs in, where it talks about “laboratory studies.” Readers cannot be expected to know than “laboratory studies” means mice.

If you need confirmation of that claim, look no further than a UK Daily Mail story based on the release that also failed completely to mention anything about rodents:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the Daily Mail was not the only outlet to be taken in by the University’s of Adelaide’s careless description of the study:

  • The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics — a group that you’d think might know better — ran a story headlined “Obesity effect on fertility could be reversed” that never mentioned anything about mice.
  • The magazine Asian Scientist picked up the story but neglected to point out the rodent connection.

We also identified dozens of outlets that appear to have to reposted the release verbatim.

Meanwhile, the Australian Broadcasting Company mentioned mice in the first sentence of their story about the study.

And The Scientist Magazine left no doubt about the nature of the study in its coverage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What we’ve uncovered here is an egregious example of a larger trend in health news media.

Evidence increasingly shows that news releases are a big part of the problem when it comes to exaggeration and hype in health stories.

And with our news release reviews, we plan to carefully, systematically shine a light on practices that serve to mislead rather than inform.

We’ll also be looking for institutions that take their communication responsibilities seriously, and holding them up to the community as a positive example.

We hope these efforts will advance our mission of improving the public dialogue about health care.

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