We often say that journalists should be more than stenographers for researchers and PR professionals. In other words, we ask them to independently vet the evidence that supports the claims and recommendations being made in their stories.
So it was great to see the BBC revisit a study that generated scaremongering headlines about the dangers of strenuous jogging — e.g. “Training very hard ‘as bad as no exercise at all” and “Fast running is as deadly as sitting on couch.” As the BBC follow-up rightfully noted (and journalist Larry Husten reported when the paper was originally published), there were a host of reasons why the results of that study should have been treated much more carefully than they were.
The BBC even gets one of the study researchers to admit that the paper was flawed and made claims not supported by evidence.
The lead author of the study, clinical cardiologist Dr Peter Schnohr, now concedes that he didn’t have the evidence to say that strenuous jogging is bad for you. “We should have said we suspect that it is so, but we can’t say for sure. Everybody makes some mistakes in papers,” he says.
While that’s commendable and valuable reporting, the story then allows the very same researcher — the one who’s just admitted to making those dodgy claims! — to make another questionable recommendation about the need for biennial screening with echocardiography.
Schnohr remains convinced that although he hasn’t proved it this time, strenuous jogging might be bad for you. “We’re not saying that you should not do the marathon, but we’re saying that maybe every other year you should do an investigation – echocardiography, and so on – to look at your heart.”
Offered at the close of the piece, this nugget will likely be viewed as one of the take-home messages of the story. It even sounds sensible — If you’re going to run, why not get an echocardiogram just to be on the safe side?
Here’s why: A 2013 review in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology concluded that this approach is simply not justified by the evidence:
“Current evidence suggests that the accuracy of all cardiac imaging modalities is insufficient to justify their use as primary screening modalities in athletes.”
The review noted that imaging studies in healthy athletes can often turn up abnormal findings that probably don’t mean anything. However, knowledge of the findings themselves can cause real harm to the athlete.
“Resulting uncertainty for the clinician and athlete has the potential for psychological stress, further testing, and unnecessary exclusions from competition.”
The review noted that cardiac imaging is useful only “for the assessment of athletes with symptoms, an abnormal electrocardiogram or a positive family history.”
This is frustrating.
Here we are with version 2.0 of this story and the message is still off the mark. We’ve gone from “Jogging kills” to “Go ahead and jog as long as you get an echocardiogram every two years.” It’s an improvement, I suppose, but a marginal one.
I reached out to Steve Atlas, MD, MPH, a primary care physician with Massachusetts General Hospital and one of our story reviewers, for his take on the BBC’s take down. He said he’s generally very supportive of patients who want to perform vigorous exercise, and so the story’s promotion of that message represents progress from the previous coverage. Still, he was troubled by the BBC’s presentation of Schnohr’s unsupported claims about cardiac testing.
“For this researcher to acknowledge that his data actually doesn’t support his belief that vigorous exercise is harmful is ok. But to go on and say that vigorous exercisers should have regular screening for heart problems with an echocardiogram simply starts the false claim mill all over again. A good reason to not fall prey to such false claims in the first place!”
The takeaway here for me is that journalists should never turn off their BS detectors and always check claims and recommendations against the evidence.
Even while coming clean on past exaggerations, your source may be angling to slip in a fresh set of unsupported claims!
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