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Problematic PR releases: Health claims based on animal studies

Mary Chris Jaklevic is a reporter-editor at HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets as @mcjaklevic.

For more information on troublesome PR, keep up with our ongoing series looking at problematic news releases.

Optimism may be a virtue, but not in news releases on animal studies.

Some other things we noticed:

  • None of these news releases cautioned about the limitations of translating animal research to people.
  • Only one of the headlines alerted readers that the study was in animals, not humans.

PR lapses lead to misleading news coverage

On the plus side: These news releases mostly refrained from sensational language such as “game-changer” or “cure.” Tempered language such as “suggest” was used in the soy release, and the colon cancer release raised the need for human research.

Still, responsible PR should clearly alert readers that animal studies can’t be applied to people.

Without those cautions, the public can easily be misled. That’s exactly what happened with these news releases, all of which were posted on the science PR aggregator site EurekAlert.

Each led to at least one news story that neglected to caution readers about the limitations of animal studies.

Newsweek picked up the soy study in a story that didn’t alert readers to the use of “rats” until the third paragraph. Its story, Soy Protein Might Counter Negative Effects of Menopause on Bone Health, Study Finds conveyed the researchers’ massive leap from observations in mice to recommendations for human health:

The researchers found that the soy-based diet also improved the metabolic function of the rats both with and without ovaries. That could mean that all women, whether or not they have reached menopause, could benefit.

“Bottom line, this study showed that women might improve bone strength by adding some soy-based whole foods to their diet,” Hinton said. “Our findings suggest that women don’t even need to eat as much soy as is found in typical Asian diets, but adding some tofu or other soy, for example foods found in vegetarian diets, could help strengthen bones.”

More stories promote unfounded health claims

Similar uncritical coverage was offered by UPI’s Researchers find better drug to suppress chronic itches, which echoed the optimistic framing of the news release.

UPI mentioned the researchers “have filed a patent application and are working with companies to develop the compound for use in human and veterinary medicine,” but didn’t report beyond the news release, leading to an incomplete news story. Readers weren’t informed about the name of the substance that was tested, the degree to which it relieved itching in animals, whether the findings were published in a peer-reviewed journal, or how much the mystery substance would cost.

In its story, Eating kale and broccoli can help prevent colon cancer, study claims, the UK Independent newspaper waited until the sixth paragraph to disclose it was reporting on a mouse study. Later, it quoted a researcher who said “the profound effect of diet on gut inflammation and colon cancer was very striking.”

Profound effect? More like profoundly misleading.

Editor’s note: The subject of research — humans, embryos, animals, or cells — is one of three components of a voluntary news release labeling initiative launched recently in the UK. While prominent labeling animal studies might give readers a better handle on the quality of evidence, it wouldn’t necessarily prevent researchers from making the unsupported leap to humans that we’ve documented in this post.

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