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Headline vs. study: Sometimes fishy, sometimes pulling a rabbit out of a hat

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

health care journalismHow likely are you to believe one of the following:

  • That a study in fish might hold the key to preventing Parkinson’s?
  • That a study in rabbits might help us prevent HIV from spreading?
  • A brain scan could pick up mental illness?

I’m betting you’re skeptical. And you should be.

But get this: all three of these textbook examples of clickbait come from university news releases (below). That’s right, ivory towers; otherwise known as institutions of higher learning.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for basic research. And animal models and high tech imaging techniques are as good a starting point as any. But that’s not the issue. The issue is how this research is disseminated to the public — whether it be via news releases or news stories — and the potential that exists for misguiding people when the headlines promise much, but the content delivers little.

That’s why we regularly take a look back at the news stories and releases we’ve systematically reviewed to see if the headlines and the content are in synch. This is what we found when we looked back over the past month.


News RELEASE report card: 8 of 14 (57%) headlines overstate evidence (we list 3 examples below)


Headline: Eating more fish could prevent Parkinson’s disease

fish dietStudy: An in vitro (lab) study only suggests that the fish protein, parvalbumin, binds to a particular human protein called “alpha-synuclein” which has been identified as forming amyloid chains in patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Our review: The news release should have made it clear that a laboratory fish experiment cannot be extrapolated to humans, and further, that no cause and effect relationship has been established between amyloid proteins and the development of any neurologic disease.


Headline: Brain scans may help diagnose neurological, psychiatric disorders 

Study: Researchers had 9 people perform a variety of tasks while having functional MRI (fMRI) scans, and found the imaging changed very little from task-to-task, or day-to-day. The news release suggested this stability means these scans could be used to reveal individual traits or diseases.

Our review: “Whereas at present depression, bipolar disorder, and many other mental illnesses can only be diagnosed based on self-reported symptoms or observations of behavior, this release suggests we are on the verge of being able to diagnose these conditions via a particular type of MRI.”


Headline: University of Waterloo develops new way to fight HIV transmission

HIV virusStudy: Evaluates a medicated vaginal implant designed to diminish the T-cell immune response to HIV infection. The active ingredient — hydrochloroquine (HCQ) — may induce a so-called “immune quiescent” state which could theoretically make women more resistant to HIV.

Our review: Although the language in the release repeatedly implies the approach could “prevent women from getting HIV infection,” it fails to mention the study is in rabbits, and can make no claims of efficacy in humans. Furthermore, claims of efficacy, reliability, and affordability are not backed up with any data whatsoever from the study.


News STORY report card: 4 of 13 (30%) headlines overstate study evidence (we list 2 examples below)


Headline: New cure for baldness could be found in existing drug, scientists say

hair lossStudy: Researchers found that a substance called Cyclosporine A (or, CsA, which has been used to treat immune disorders and transplant rejection) affected a protein that stunts the development of hair follicles. They then identified an osteoporosis drug that has a similar effect on hair follicles in the lab, but could potentially have fewer side effects than CsA. Nothing in this study of lab proteins is ready to be extrapolated to follicularly-challenged humans.

Our review: The story didn’t say anything about the quality of the study, the implications, and “should have explained up front that potential advances are years away, if they come at all.”


Headline: Partial rather than full knee replacements better for many — report

Study: A review of medical records, not a randomized controlled study, that suggests partial knee replacement is associated with better health outcomes and lower lifetime costs than total knee replacement.

Our review:  According to our reviewers “the story glosses over how the study was conducted, what was measured, and what the limitations were … and doesn’t make clear what the benefits of the surgery are.” Not only that, this sort of chart review is not rigorous enough to support the sweeping conclusions of the headline.


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

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