Headline vs. study: Bait and switch?

Michael Joyce is a multimedia journalist and writer/producer for HealthNewsReview.org. He tweets as @mlmjoyce

We all do it in journalism. We are taught to write a headline that a) captures what the story is about, and b) captures the reader’s attention.

Nothing wrong with that.

Where the problem comes in is if the headline misleads or misinforms. And, as is so often the case with healthcare topics, that sort of disconnect has the potential to do more harm than good.

So, once again, we’ve decided to take a look back at our last month of news stories and releases to see if the headlines and the content were in synch, or more of a bait and switch. Because, let’s face it, if the headline is merely fancy window dressing, and the content doesn’t deliver, then we have to ask ourselves: which will readers remember most? The catchy headline? Or, the actual meat of the story?

• News STORY report card: 6 of 14 (42%) headlines overstate study evidence (we list only four examples below) •

Headline: Strobe lighting provides a flicker of hope in the fight against Alzheimer’s

Study: Mice were exposed to a pulsing light on a daily basis for one week.The result was that certain toxins associated with Alzheimer’s disease were dramatically reduced in their brains.

Our review: “This is a story that admits many of the limitations of the research it cites, but initially draws people in with a headline that promises much more than the research has so far delivered.” The researchers documented a reduction in a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease — in mice. They didn’t show that the lights improved the animals’ memory or ability to function, let alone that the lights would produce the same results in humans with Alzheimer’s. “This research is years away from impacting human lives, if indeed the findings end up being relevant to humans at all — and that needed to be explained better.”

Headline: Never Too Old to be an Organ Donor

Study: Retrospective analysis of 647 kidney transplants, analyzed by the age of donors, to try to determine if age made the transplants less successful. Results showed that the five-year survival rate for recipients was not changed much by the age of the donor. But donors over 80 years of age had kidneys that could not be used — and had to be discarded — almost half the time.

Our review: Almost half of the prospective donors over 80 years of age were, in fact, too old or otherwise unsuitable to be kidney donors. We also found that the story  “left out important details: What are the risks of using kidneys from older donors? What are the rules regarding the age of donors in the U.S.? This story raises hopes by suggesting older deceased donors may not need to be excluded on the basis of age. Many people will want to know how these findings will impact kidney availability in the U.S., if at all.”

Headline: Pets Help People Manage the Pain of Serious Mental Illness

Study: This qualitative study is based on interviews of 54 people in England with “long-term” mental illness, 25 of whom are pet owners who consider their pets part of their social network. The scientists asked who they went to when they needed help or advice, where they gained emotional support and encouragement and how they spent their days. Sixty percent of the people who considered pets to be a part of their social networks placed them in the central, most important circle — the same place many people put close family and social workers. 20 percent placed pets in the second circle.

Our review: The “headline is based on the self-reporting of 25 patients in the United Kingdom who already own pets and consider them part of their social network.” That’s a small, biased group from which to be drawing the broad conclusion that “pets help manage the pain of serious mental illness.” Not all people with serious mental disorders are good candidates for pet ownership and many likely would not be helped by an animal companion. “Giving a pet to someone with a major mental illness, who has not previously cared for an animal, could go very poorly without the right support systems in place.”

Headline: Short Course of Antibiotics Not Best for Kids’ Ear Infections

Study: Compares longer versus shorter treatment duration in youngsters (9-23 months of age) with ear infections. Children were randomized to either receive a 10-day course or an abbreviated 5-day course of antibiotics. Risk of treatment failure in the 10-day group was found to be 16 percent, and 34 percent in the 5-day group.

Our review: “It doesn’t make it clear that research indicates that antibiotics seem more effective in younger kids versus older kids, and that’s why this study was focusing on this younger age group. Without this detail, it’s likely to leave parents with the wrong impression that treating all ear infections with longer courses of antibiotics is the right thing to do … the story also didn’t adequately discuss the potential harms in prescribing antibiotics to children who don’t need them.”

• News RELEASE report card: 6 of 17 (35%) headlines overstate evidence (we list only four examples below) •

Headline: Dabigatran Superior to Warfarin when Anticoagulation is Resumed After Bleeding

Study: An analysis of Medicare data for 1,500 patients who suffered a major bleeding event while taking anticoagulants for atrial fibrillation. Researchers found that patients who resumed anticoagulants after a hemorrhage had decreased stroke and mortality rates than those who did not. Furthermore, those who resumed treatment with a newer drug, dabigatran, had fewer recurrent hemorrhages than those who restarted treatment with the old standby warfarin.

Our review:  “Bottom line: this is an observational study, not a controlled clinical trial. It is not appropriate to be making recommendations about one drug or another based on such a study.” Especially when important study limitations aren’t mentioned. For example: “…clinicians may have been reluctant to prescribe dabigatran to patients who were most at risk for recurrent bleeding during the period that the data were collected, from 2010 to 2012.”

Headline: Drug for Narcolepsy Could Help Food Addicts Lose Weight

Study: The study compares two drugs used to treat narcolepsy (and other sleep disorders) with a placebo in gauging whether the drugs improve impulse control, and suggests these results could be applied to the general population. The release claims that after a single dose, one of the drugs, Modafinil, reduced impulsive behavior in the study’s 60 normal weight males who volunteered for the trial.”

Our review:The study involved 60 normal weight males who volunteered for the trial — not “food addicts.” The study didn’t document weight loss. “The study was based on just a single dose given to healthy volunteers who were followed up with psychological testing. The release does not provide any explanation of what the test measured or revealed, only that Modafinal ‘significantly reduced level of impulsiveness’.”

Headline: ‘Miracle Patient’ Finds New Hope with Breast Cancer Vaccine

Study: There is no study here, just a focus on the “miracle” response of a single patient with triple-negative breast cancer to a drug combination that included an experimental cancer vaccine and a biosimilar drug (pembrolizumab; marketed as Keytruda). The treating physician is quoted as saying “she’s healed, basically,” but is only referring to skin findings and “the next step will be to take bone and CT scans to see if the cancer is disappearing internally as well.”

Our review: To label this a ‘miracle’ is premature and may give similar patients more ‘false’ hope than ‘new’ hope. It’s based on a single case. Follow-up scans regarding impact on the patient’s metastases are still pending, and researchers say they don’t know which element of the treatment may have benefited the patient. We’re also concerned that the release is heavily laden with other misleading superlatives such as “remarkable” and “shocking” and goes so far as to makes a pitch for breast cancer patients to become hospital clients.

We’ve profiled City of Hope’s penchant for “miracle mongering” previously on HealthNewsReview.org.

Headline: New apps designed to reduce depression and anxiety as easily as checking your phone

Study: The study followed 99 people with anxiety or depression over 8 weeks as they used a suite of 14 interactive apps that included activities like goal-setting, behavioral modification techniques, cognitive reframing and suggestions for sleep, relaxation, and exercise. Coaches were also employed. Study results showed that between 37-42% of participants met criteria for full remission or no symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Our review: The fact that almost two-thirds of the participants were already on psychiatric medication, almost 1 out of 4 were in psychotherapy, and they all received both compensation and regular coaching renders the results questionable and the headline misleading. Also, there was no control group.

Furthermore, we noted that an emailed version of the release pitched journalists with the titillating subject heading: “Depression Apps as Fast as Finding Good Sushi.” We suspect the speed of the app would depend upon your service, and the speed of improving depression depends upon much, much more.

Of note, in our inaugural “Headlines vs. Study” (November, 2016) we found that about 1 out of 3 NEWS STORY headlines (31%) overstated the study evidence, and about 1 out of 4  NEWS RELEASE headlines (24%) did the same. We’re committed to continuing this series. The reason? In a media climate in which deadlines are accelerated to match the speed of the internet, more and more journalists are turning to the convenience of press releases as their point of entry for newsworthy stories. If these headlines are actually too catchy to be true, and many of us journalists too rushed to be careful, then we may be faced with a crisis of accuracy that starts at the very beginning of our stories.

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