Joy Victory is deputy managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org. She feels bad for lab mice.
Among the many things we might ask health care journalists to put on their to-do lists in 2018, dialing back on coverage of animal studies ranks near the top.
Yet, we won’t be placing any bets: As with years past, 2017 was full of hyped-up headlines based on pre-clinical evidence. Big claims were made about memory loss, obesity, vision loss, aging, infections, blood clots, heroin addiction, fertility, and more.
Why do these stories keep polluting our news feeds? As we know from systematically reviewing news releases week in and week out, the hyperbole often starts with misleading or incomplete communiques sent to journalists by PR folks hoping to garner some positive coverage of the institution they work for–even if it means promoting research that’s not really ready for a primetime news audience. It moves downstream when journalists parrot a news release’s takeaways without scrutinizing the claims. It’s a pattern we see again and again.
Let’s take a look at three of the year’s worst offenders, and three examples of how to do it better:
Last summer, a preliminary study on olive oil was picked up by no fewer than five major news outlets, thanks to a news release from Temple University. The release’s headline makes a completely false and unfounded claim: “Extra-virgin olive oil preserves memory & protects brain against Alzheimer’s.”
When we took a look a the resulting news coverage, we decided readers would be better off if they ignored all the headlines, which mostly just parroted the release.
Unfortunately, months later, Temple U. was back at it again, this time linking canola oil with worsening memory skills, based on–yep–more preliminary mouse studies.
News outlets including Newsweek and The Philadelphia Inquirer were happy to jump on the hamster wheel, churning out clickbait. Yet, “this new study doesn’t say anything meaningful for consumers,” wrote HealthNewsReview.org contributor Mary Chris Jaklevic. “It’s simply one more example of the overblown diet claims that drive public skepticism of the field of nutrition science.”
It’s scary how misguided the news coverage was on this one. We discovered that what started out as an interesting presentation at a scientific meeting about one thing (what might happen–in theory–if hibernation could be successfully replicated in people) became a news story about something else altogether (a forthcoming cancer cure), generating headlines like this:
So far, the only non-hibernating “patients” to have been induced into hibernation are rats, though.
“It’s not just cavalier but downright irresponsible to dangle the word ‘cure’ in media coverage of a science presentation, or paper, that had nothing to do with cancer or cancer research,” wrote HealthNewsReview.org producer Michael Joyce.
The good: The headline of this 2-star story (“Obesity cure? Scientists discover antibody that reduces body fat in mice”) is at least upfront about this being rodent research.
The bad: It then veers into reckless reporting by speculating about potential benefits in humans, even though we have no idea if this antibody will ever work in people. Nor do we know what the risks are.
“If a story is going to discuss the potential benefits, such as this one does,” our reviewers noted, “it has a responsibility to place the work in context by touching on issues related to the quality of the evidence, conflicts of interest and potential adverse health effects — even if only to say that no one knows what those adverse effects may be in humans.”
If you’re going to publicize your rodent research, at least be upfront about it. It also doesn’t hurt to be cute. An Emory University news release on smitten prairie voles put hearts in our eyes, not only because it’s adorable to think about, but because the resulting news coverage was better-than-average.
Although their ‘obesity cure’ story mentioned above earned two stars, Newsweek earned four stars for the story, “Can marijuana restore memory? New study shows cannabis can reverse cognitive decline in mice.”
Note that, again, “in mice” is already in the headline. Thank you, Newsweek, for being consistent with that. The story also got high marks for including temperate and cautionary advice from a source not connected to the research.
Lastly, CNN laudably earned five stars for the story, “Researchers use frog mucus to fight the flu.” What could have been another “animals study proves XYZ in people” type of story, this piece carefully explored how scientists are researching the antiviral potency of peptides in frog mucus. Our reviewers noted it offers an interesting look at an approach that might—emphasis on “might”—become a viable strategy.
“The story does an admirable job of explaining how the peptide kills the virus, provides good contextual comments from independent sources, and repeatedly reminds readers that testing in humans is yet to be accomplished,” reviewers said, adding, “those seeking to understand the research will be both rewarded and entertained.”
More 2017 year-ender posts
Friday, December 15: Kicking off 2017 HealthNewsReview.org year-ender series
Monday, December 19: Major themes from a year’s worth of news release reviews
Friday, December 22: Memorable lines from memorable interviews from 12 podcasts we produced this year.