Joy Victory is deputy managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets as @thejoyvictory.
Last week about a dozen different news outlets reported on a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that researchers have grown a “living” hip replacement using stem cells and gene therapy.
Given that news coverage around stem cell treatments tends to be fraught with problems–as we pointed out recently in “Journalists: 9 tips to combat stem cell hype in your news stories”–we decided to see how the stories framed the news.
Most of the news coverage we looked at had headlines that predictably overstated the findings, while the body text dove deeper into the research in a mostly accurate way.
Two of these stories stood out, though. One was great. One was …not so great, and they make for an interesting comparison.
In the spirit of Charles Dickens, one was the best of the news stories, and one was the worst of the news stories. Let’s start with the good stuff.
The best of the news stories
Right out of the gate, this headline keeps our expectations in check: This is about something grown in a lab. It might help.
As well, the second sentence of the story immediately grounds us, again:
“The cartilage hasn’t been tested in humans yet, and it’s too early to know anything about side effects or cost.”
Later, after we get a lot of details on the science, we’re given a cautionary statement from an independent source, who points out how early and experimental the research is, adding “Unfortunately, this does not mean that people can ask their doctors for this form of treatment any time soon.”
And this is followed by something we don’t see enough in news stories: financial disclosure. “Several of the study authors have a financial interest in Cytex Therapeutics, which holds patents for the development of these devices,” the story says.
The even-keeled headline, the cautionary tone, an independent source, the financial disclosure: This all adds up to a news story that is well-balanced. So it gave us a little bit of mental whiplash when we clicked on over to a UK Daily Mail story, the bad apple of the batch.
The worst of the news stories
It’s cringe-worthy right from the start: “The hip replacement fashioned from a tummy tuck: New joints grown from stomach fat will ‘treat arthritis and trim bulging bellies.’
Yes, that’s the headline, which is an incredibly far cry from the headline of the research study itself: “Anatomically shaped tissue-engineered cartilage with tunable and inducible anticytokine delivery for biological joint resurfacing” and from the news release by the Washington University School of Medicine “Stem cells engineered to grow cartilage, fight inflammation.”
Not only is the story promising this will treat hip arthritis (which remains to be seen), it’s adding
a claim that it also will “trim bulging bellies.” The story even calls it a “two-in-one” procedure–one that I could see many Baby Boomers lining up for right now, if true.
Suspicious, I checked with Jim Dryden, who works in public affairs at Washington University and wrote the news release from the medical school. He confirmed that the research didn’t extend to plastic surgery. While the stem cells were taken from fat tissue, the research had no “two-in-one” hypothesis.
“The main point is that they conceivably can use a person’s own tissue to potentially eliminate any immune response that might arise if the tissue came from someone else,” Dryden said. “In order to make one of these living replacements, a small liposuction would be required. But the liposuction would be more about acquiring the necessary stem cells than helping a patient to trim down.”
Fortunately, the story did end on a cautionary note, with a quote from an independent source, who provides a similar warning that we saw in the HealthDay story: “This study is still very much in its experimental stages and will need further research to be carried out on humans before we can know if it’s a viable option.”
But not surprisingly, the story provides zero follow-up on the tummy tuck claim, focusing entirely on the arthritis side of the research. Granted, maybe British readers are aware that the Daily Mail skews into tabloid territory, and likes to have a bit of fun with its outrageous headlines (and facts, apparently). But readers on this side of the pond who stumble onto the story via social media or search engines may be taken in, unsuspecting.
And there are signs that readers in the UK are fed up, though. As user “Chancel” from Manchester commented: “How about only reporting on things that are actually going to be used? Or do the media like to promote false hopes?”
Editor’s note: Tomorrow we’ll continue our focus on stem cells by profiling a terribly misleading promotional TV segment that many viewers will mistake for journalism.