Editor’s note: In response to concerns first raised by HealthNewsReview.org in a news release review and the following blog post, the University of Maryland has announced it is conducting an investigation into the study at the center of this controversy.
Why did the University of Maryland issue multiple news releases about a health research project… and then decline to talk about it? That’s just one of the questions piling up about research involving high school football players, concussions and a brand of chocolate milk.
It started routinely. I was asked by HealthNewsReview.org to take the first look at a news release from the University of Maryland. “Concussion-Related Measures Improved in High School Football Players Who Drank New Chocolate Milk, UMD Study Shows” read the headline. The lead went further, claiming not just an association, but that the milk was responsible.
“Fifth Quarter Fresh, a new, high-protein chocolate milk, helped high school football players improve their cognitive and motor function over the course of a season, even after experiencing concussions, a new preliminary University of Maryland study shows.” – University of Maryland news release
My first step when doing one of these reviews is to read the original research report. But there was no journal article cited in the release. Searches of the university web site and www.PubMed.gov came up empty. I emailed and called news office contacts for the university/industry R&D program, Maryland Industrial Partnerships program (MIPS), that put out the release and the UM School of Public Health, home of lead researcher Prof. Jae Kun Shim. I also emailed and called Prof. Shim. While waiting to hear back, I proceeded with my review of the release, sans study article. (The final review found the news release to be “Not Satisfactory” on all but one of 10 criteria.)
The next morning I received a call from the MIPS news office contact listed on the news release, Eric Schurr. What I heard astounded me. I couldn’t find any journal article because there wasn’t one. Not only wasn’t this study published, it might never be submitted for publication. There wasn’t even an unpublished report they could send me. Schurr said he would try to connect me with Prof. Shim. I told him that my initial review of the release wasn’t glowing, in part because there were vague claims of improvements and higher scores, but not a single specific number by which to judge the amount of any potential benefit. I also questioned the university’s decision to issue a news release (and a related one issued last summer) without being ready to provide supporting details about the study and its results.
The next day things took a turn. I received an email from Schurr that said in part, “Thank you for reaching out and following up regarding the Fifth Quarter Fresh study. Since this is a preliminary study, we have learned it will make more sense to speak with you once there are more conclusive research results.”
While the University of Maryland program invited reporters to regurgitate their news releases, when I started asking questions, the invitation to report on this research was rescinded.
I asked Schurr for a chance to speak with him about the decision to issue a news release on a project that suddenly was too “preliminary” to talk about. He referred me to Crystal Brown, Chief Communications Officer for the University of Maryland. She asked me by email what information I needed for my story. After I told her that I had questions about the university’s policies on issuing news releases and the decision to not provide study details, she wrote back, “Thanks for your interest in an interview, but I must respectfully decline at this time. However, I’m happy to alk with you once a paper is published on this research and there is more conclusive information to share.”
I persevered, sending Brown a list of some of my questions of the policies and conduct of the university, including how the refusal to provide study details squares with the university policy on industry collaboration that states in part: “It is the policy of UM that instruction, research, and services will be accomplished openly and will lead to the publication and dissemination of the results of academic and research activities.” (See a list of other unanswered questions below.)
One of the more troubling items in the news release is a quote from the superintendent of the school district whose students participated in this experiment.
“There is nothing more important than protecting our student-athletes,” said Clayton Wilcox, superintendent of Washington County Public Schools. “Now that we understand the findings of this study, we are determined to provide Fifth Quarter Fresh to all of our athletes.” – University of Maryland news release
So it appears that the school is ready to change student-athlete nutrition based on research that is not available for independent review. Sure, doling out chocolate milk seems benign, though each serving contains the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar. (The news release touted the milk’s protein, calcium and electrolyte content, but omitted any mention of sugar.) But how can this study be convincing enough to act on, if it is too preliminary to talk about?
I would have asked Superintendent Wilcox that question, if he had returned my call. (His secretary noted that I was the second reporter to call about that topic. The HealthNewsReview.org one-star review of the University of Maryland news release inspired some curiosity. I hope Wilcox responds to the other reporters.) I would also ask him whether the Fifth Quarter Fresh product costs more than generic chocolate milk, and if so, why should the school pay a premium when, according to the news release, the study did not include any other brands of chocolate milk, so there’s no evidence this product produces different results.
A final note… the purpose of reviewing news releases is to offer constructive criticism. News releases, especially from sources such as the University of Maryland that are widely perceived to be acting to benefit the community, are increasingly passed along to the public with little or no scrutiny. Certainly that was the case here, in which the stories we found online either simply re-posted the news release or provided a summary, without delving into the underlying study. In order to truly serve the public, those issuing news releases should aspire to meeting the 10 HealthNewsReview.org criteria (the items specific to news releases are listed below the criteria applied to news reports).
Here is the list of some of the questions I’d like the University of Maryland to answer:
I’m waiting for answers.
Addendum: Our review of this UMD news release has led to a number of follow-up stories that have added depth and context to our reporting. This is one of the reasons we think it’s important to review these PR communications.
Former CNN Medical Correspondent Andrew Holtz is an independent journalist based in Portland, Oregon. He’s been a long-time blog contributor and reviewer for HealthNewsReview.org.