Mary Chris Jaklevic is a reporter-editor at HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets as @mcjaklevic.
We’ve written about how news releases that oversell medical research pollute the stream of public information by spawning news stories that echo hype.
Now there’s an effort underway in the UK to reduce the contamination at its source.
Launching this month is a labeling system for news releases to help journalists assess how robust research findings are and how relevant they are to patients.
It’s hoped the voluntary labels will curb reporting of exaggerated claims and draw more attention to caveats. It was created by the UK’s Science Media Centre (SMC), which disseminates scientific data to the news media.
Although some organizations already include such information, the labeling “brings added value in that it puts these words very clearly at the top,” allowing busy journalists to see the information at a glance, SMC Chief Executive Fiona Fox said.
The labels indicate:
Reporting such information on the quality of evidence is among 10 criteria in HealthNewsReview.org’s news release reviews. We also invite media relations officers to submit news releases for critique prior to publication.
The process should nudge media relations staffs to check the accuracy of labels with researchers and signal to researchers that the media relations team “takes measured and responsible press release writing as an important part of the process,” Fox added.
“We hope that it will tone down overexcited scientists who think their study will change the world,” she said.
The SMC was tapped to develop the system — and to educate reporters and editors about the scientific process — in a 2017 report by the UK’s Academy of Medical Sciences, an independent fellowship of researchers.
The academy found low public regard for scientific evidence in the wake of confusing reports about statins, the antiviral drug Tamiflu, and vaccines. It reported that just 37% of the British public said they trusted evidence derived from medical research, while 65% trusted experiences of friends and family.
The academy drew from a 2014 study that found exaggerated claims in news releases correlated with exaggerated claims in news coverage.
That study “made an impact on the scientific community. It was embarrassing,” Fox said.
At least five journals, five charities, and 20 universities affirmed they’ll use the labels, although Fox couldn’t quantify the number of UK organizations that issue medical releases.
Among them are journals such as The BMJ and the Lancet and the medical review organization Cochrane.
Jono Bruun, MD, CEO of the British Pharmacological Society, tweeted enthusiastically that the society “will be labelling the heck out of our press releases.”
The labels are less blunt than the academy’s suggestion of a “traffic light” system, which Fox said a few organizations resisted on the grounds that it could gut news coverage of weaker findings such as meeting abstracts, which aren’t peer-reviewed.
They also don’t address other good practices for news releases identified by the academy, such as providing context about previous evidence.
Journalists must assess the evidence critically. For example, some observational studies are very well done, while some randomized clinical trials — which are generally considered the gold standard for determining cause and effect — are full of holes. And even early-stage human trials may never result in a product.
Still, Petroc Sumner, a psychology professor at Cardiff University and co-author of the study that documented exaggerated news releases, expressed optimism that the labels “could go quite a long way to prompting academic authors, press officers and journalists to think about the wording of claims.”
“In order to be pragmatic, it needed to be simple,” he said. “So while any of us could identify limitations (cases that don’t quite fit the labels, or distinctions the labels don’t make), I think the balance is about right.”
Sumner said “an equally big step” would be if research funders and the nation’s Research Excellence Framework encourage universities to sign an agreement on responsible news releases. “This would reassure press officers that they can be cautious without pressure from their bosses or academics to get more news,” he said via email.
The labels probably will not dissuade all news organizations from reporting preliminary research, but some hope they’ll at least include more caveats. “If it’s quirky and novel, they will report it. They won’t let a label stop them,” Fox said.
Some experts expressed skepticism that these labels would succeed in the U.S., with its massive scope of medical research, ubiquitous direct-to-consumer advertising, and penchant for unfettered free speech.
Earle Holland, a former senior science and medical communications officer at Ohio State University, said efforts over past decades tried in vain to “apply some qualitative evaluative leverage to science information aimed at the public.”
“Competition for health care dollars is so great here that any kind of self-policing of information seems doomed to failure,” he said via email.
Joann Rodgers, a retired science journalist who also directed media relations at Johns Hopkins Medicine, called the labels compelling, noting that medical research centers use news releases not just to pitch journalists, but also to market themselves directly to patients, donors, alumni, and the general public.
“I think this is in the category of chicken soup. It couldn’t hurt,” she said.
Ann Miller, associate professor in communication at the University of Central Florida, suggested U.S. adoption could be spurred by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds the lion’s share of the nation’s health and medical research.
“The thousands of researchers who work with the NIH or the NSF (National Science Foundation) already work within certain mandates for handling and reporting data,” she said.
Ivan Oransky, MD, president of the U.S.-based Association of Health Care Journalists, said the labeling is a “reasonable approach, and the information would be useful.”
But he cautioned that focusing on news releases about individual studies “may miss the forest for the trees.”
“Ideally, journalists would focus less on single studies, and more on the larger narratives of science and medicine,” he said via email. “That will require reporters to have more time to do such work, and scientists to be willing to talk to reporters about the work even when they don’t have a big study coming out.”