What we’ve learned from >3 months of reviewing health care news releases

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The following blog post is written by Kevin Lomangino, the managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org, who’s had his hand in each of the “practice” reviews of health care news releases that we’ve done since the start of the year.

In January, we announced that we’d be adding news releases to our established effort to systematically review health care news stories. And since that time, we’ve been slowly — carefully — evaluating a handful of such news releases each week from multiple sources, including government agencies, medical journals, medical centers, and drug/device manufacturers.

New press release daily newspaper headlineNot all of our readers may know the difference between a news (press) release and a news story.

  • A news story is supposed to be written by a journalist who independently vets information.
  • A news release, on the other hand – using Wikipedia’s definition – “is common in the field of public relations (PR). Typically, the aim is to attract favorable media attention to the PR professional’s client and/or provide publicity for products or events marketed by those clients.”

With the reboot of HealthNewsReview.org that launches today, we’re ready to start showing you what we’ve been up to.

We’ll be rolling out these banked reviews beginning with today’s example from the University of Wisconsin. We’ll post a couple of them each week, in addition to fresh reviews that we’ll begin assigning to our beefed-up staff of contributors.

It’s been great to have Earle Holland, retired Ohio State assistant vice president for research communications, helping us carry out this effort. We’ve also had significant input and feedback from veteran science writers — including Sharon Dunwoody, PhD, A’ndrea Elyse Messer, MS, PhD, Joann Rodgers, MS, and Matt Shipman.

You’ll receive an in-depth, systematic analysis of each news release when we publish the individual reviews. But for now, I can share some preliminary observations about the trends we’ve seen thus far.

  • “Spinning” results to boost news appeal. Today’s release about an Alzheimer’s disease study is an example of this insidious trend. We’ve also seen other releases that are almost Orwellian in their attempt to make negative studies appear to show something exciting.
  • Unsupported claims. We understand that news releases are intended to promote as well as inform. But many releases we’ve reviewed — including, in some cases, from respected professional organizations — don’t even make a half-hearted attempt to back up their assertions with evidence.
  • Lack of quantification. News releases often don’t make any effort to put a numerical value on the results being described. Or, if the results are quantified, they are described in relative terms that are likely to overstate the size of the effect.
  • Cost unconsciousness. Only a handful of releases thus far have addressed cost in any meaningful way. There seems to be less emphasis on cost in news releases than there is in news stories — where some 70% of our reviews have found that cost coverage is inadequate.

The news isn’t all bad, though.

Overall, news releases are doing a pretty good job of disclosing funding sources for studies and identifying potential conflicts of interest in their sources. That seems like progress compared with what we might have found on this issue a decade ago.

And we’ve noticed that some organizations are doing consistently fine work communicating new health care findings in a responsible, evidence-based way — although our sample thus far is limited. We’ll be going out of our way to shine a light on organizations that regularly provide the information that consumers need to make informed health care decisions.

But our overall first impression confirms that there’s plenty of important work to do here. Our findings suggest that health care news releases frequently pass along misleading or incomplete information. And so it’s no surprise that this misinformation often ends up in health-care related news stories.

By publicly reviewing the quality of health care news releases, our project aims to provide a level of accountability that’s been missing until now. We hope to encourage and cajole the people who contribute to health care news releases — including communications professionals and researchers — into upping their game for the public good. And we’ll provide the support they need to do a better job it through our Toolkit, blog, and other resources.

There are many in the health care communications food chain who contribute to problems in the messages that reach the public.  We’re now tackling two of the main sources — news releases and news stories — trying to help them improve.  But if they don’t get the message, at least consumers will get the same lessons directly from us.

We hope you’ll support this effort by reading, sharing, and leaving your comments about this effort.

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Comments (1)

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Robert Blade

April 16, 2015 at 3:48 pm

Nice overview. There’s no doubt that good research is being done and that hospital or corporate PR departments want to promote it, but the translation is part of the problem. PR people are usually ex-journalists or those who majored in PR in school. Their background in math and science is often sketchy. They often don’t know enough to ask the researchers good questions about what the research means and about its limits. I’m picturing some highly chagrinned researchers when they read the releases and see the results in the news.