Last week, we published a review of a JAMA Network news release about a study on breastfeeding and childhood leukemia risk. Our reviewers called the news release “incomplete” and “one-sided,” and said they were worried that the flawed presentation would lead to “a flurry of overblown media coverage.”
The study was a meta-analysis of previous case-control studies that had a number of key limitations that the release never commented on. The release glossed over those limitations entirely while emphasizing the headline message that “breastfeeding may lower risk of childhood leukemia.”
It’s worth reading the entire review to get a sense of what was missing. Because you won’t receive any of that context from some of the news reports that also lacked these crucial details.
To be clear, we don’t know whether or not these stories were following the lead of the incomplete JAMA news release — and some of them included original reporting that most certainly went beyond the release.
But whether they relied on that release or not, all of the stories — like the release — lacked any mention of possible limitations to the study.
They expressed not one note of caution about the results, even though the study itself had four paragraphs and 450 words (more text than some of the resulting news stories!) dedicated to an extensive laundry list of such limitations.
I think this is an example of where a news release can make a real difference in the public discussion. It’s been established that — for better or worse — news coverage of health studies often reflects the framing of the news release that announces the results.
And if those news releases can do a better job, it follows that many stories based on those news releases will also become more complete and informative.
Not that we’re making excuses for media outlets that failed to dig deeper on an issue that cried out for more exploration. It certainly was possible to report more thoroughly on this issue, and many outlets did so. For example:
Yesterday, we highlighted a study showing that only 24% of news releases discuss any limitations to the study they report on, and a paltry 4% caution that observational studies cannot prove cause and effect.
Here’s a specific example of how that failure may lead to misinformation reaching the news consumer — and how different communicators can play a role in providing the context that readers need.