Hype in health news stories often originates with an exaggerated news release from an academic institution, research suggests.
But news releases aren’t always to blame when journalists make over-the-top claims about a study.
Sometimes, the news release can do an excellent job of presenting a careful, cautious summary of the research that emphasizes limitations and the need for more study — and news outlets will still end up framing the findings in overly zealous, promotional language.
We saw what was likely an example of that scenario yesterday with coverage of a preliminary study on the use of resveratrol — an antioxidant compound found in grapes and red wine — in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Our reviewers praised the Georgetown University Medical Center release issued for the phase 2 safety study, calling it “appropriately tempered and very informative, hitting home the message that these research findings are preliminary.”
But a Time magazine story about the study received low marks from our review team. They saw a number of instances of exaggeration, and noted that “the story seems to reach farther than the evidence and could easily mislead readers.”
Let’s take a side-by-side look at some of the differences in framing between the Georgetown and Time accounts of the study:
“Impacting” a biomarker appropriately suggests that we don’t know if this effect is good, bad, or indifferent, and is much more tentative than Time’s framing of “slowing Alzheimer’s,” which this study didn’t address.
Again, the news release appropriately emphasizes the biomarker effects, whereas Time jumps ahead to predicting an impact on disease progression.
Interpretation of key findings on brain volume:
Is a shrinking brain a good thing? The news release at least acknowledges that loss of brain volume might indicate a worrisome loss of brain tissue, whereas Time inexplicably puts an entirely positive spin on this result.
Discussion of potential harms:
Omitting potential harms — especially weight loss, which is a well-recognized issue for Alzheimer’s patients — serves to further unbalance Time’s coverage in favor of (entirely speculative) benefits.
Bottom line: The news release faithfully reports that the study found a change in a biomarker that has uncertain clinical significance in a study that’s too small to address benefits. But the Time story inappropriately made the leap to suggesting that resveratrol can slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
A competing CNN story fared much better in our review, as it included many of the same cautions and caveats that Georgetown emphasized in its release.
Of course, we can’t say for certain whether either of these stories were prompted by the Georgetown news release or whether anyone involved with these stories even saw the release. But then again, how many reporters read the journal Neurology each week on their own?
It’s not hard to see why Time would want to make the leap from biomarker to benefit — it makes the findings sound more interesting and relevant, and it might make people more likely to read the story.
But such framing gives readers an inflated sense of how strong this study was and how close we are to having an effective treatment. It has the potential to instill false hope.
Even in much larger studies of potential Alzheimer’s drugs, scientists are finding it frustratingly difficult to show any impact at all from reducing levels of Alzheimer’s-related biomarkers in the brain.
In her review comments on the Time story, HealthNewsReview.org contributor Susan Molchan, MD, reminded us that we’ve been down this road many times before with other proposed Alzheimer’s therapies.
“So many small clinical trials in Alzheimer’s have made headlines like this one, only to come up totally negative when studied in a properly powered trial,” she said.