Headline vs. study: The unbearable heaviness of false hope

Michael Joyce is a writer-producer at HealthNewsReview.org and tweets as @mlmjoyce

Here’s a perfect storm.

health care journalismTake several common diseases that affect millions of people —  like antibiotic-resistant infections, Alzheimer’s disease, major depression and bipolar disease —  and then write headlines about recent (or old!) studies on these illnesses that hint at hope.

But then, in the ensuing article, don’t give your readers evidence to support your hopeful headline.

What is that? Irresponsible? Unethical? Or just sloppy journalism?

Regardless of what you call it, it’s such a pervasive problem that we see it daily. Especially with news releases.

One of our primary motivations in regularly publishing “Headline vs Study” is to get reporters and PR writers to stop and ask themselves: Is this headline accurate or is it offering misinformation or — worse yet — false hope?

Here’s a look at some headlines going back to October 31st, many of which walk that fine line of offering false hope to some understandably vulnerable people.


News RELEASE report card: 6 of 13 (46%) headlines overstate evidence (we list three examples below)

Headline: Scientists make significant breakthrough on superbug-killing antibiotic teixobactin

Study: No human research = no “breakthrough.” Period.

Our review: “Only a fraction of a percent of experimental drugs that produce positive laboratory test results survive the hurdles of animal and human testing. Especially when the need is so great, as is the case with antibiotic resistant infections, news releases should not proclaim success prematurely.”


Headline: Using Radar to Make Breast Surgery Easier for Women

Study: There is no study here. It’s worth noting that the manufacturers of the radar device — called the ‘Savi Scout’ — got FDA approval for commercial sales three years ago, but were not required to conduct clinical trials to assess safety and efficacy. This is not an uncommon practice, and worrisome enough that we’ve written this primer: “Why ‘approved’ medical devices in the US may not be safe or effective.”

Our review: Theoretically, this is a promising technology that could save time, money, and patient discomfort when compared to the existing method for marking tumors … which involves placing a wire marker under ultrasound. But theoretically doesn’t cut it. More rigorous studies are needed. Until then, headlines which make promises without supporting evidence are premature.


Headline: Simple Electrocardiogram Can Determine Whether a Patient Has Major Depression or Bipolar Disorder, Study Finds

electrocardiogramStudy: The study measured heart rate variability and inflammatory biomarkers. It did not prove such parameters could predict these two common mental illnesses, as the headline suggests.

Our review: Using language such as “groundbreaking” or “major breakthrough in psychiatric and primary care practices” — and not backing it up with data — is reckless. Especially when discussing very preliminary findings (with significant limitations) related to two diseases that affect millions of people who are understandably eager for new information.


News STORY report card: 4 of 13 (30%) headlines overstate study evidence (we list two examples below)

Headline: Blood From Young People Safe and Just Might Help Alzheimer’s Patients

Study: The results of this small, observational “proof of concept” study ended up as an abstract at a meeting last month. It has not not been peer-reviewed or published. The research question: Do these infusions improve the mental functioning of Alzheimer’s patients? The findings: They don’t.

Our review: “The study has less than a dozen participants. There was no measurable data …  its ‘conclusions’ are basically the observations/opinion of caregivers as to changes in these patients … the beginning of ‘real’ clinical trials is at least a year off and there’s no guarantee that they will take place.”


Headline: Blood Thinners May Also Protect Brains of A-Fib Patients

Study: An observational cohort study that cannot prove that anticoagulant use reduces the risk of dementia. [See our primer on the limitations of observational studies]

Our review: “The story uses inappropriate language throughout, including in the headline and lead sentence, to suggest a cause-and-effect relationship between anticoagulants and dementia.” Reviewers found this sentence …”New research suggests they [blood thinners] help prevent dementia as well as stroke” … to be completely unwarranted given the study design.


You can find more from our Headline vs. Study series HERE

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