The art of the non-news release: News you can’t use

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

Sometimes the most obvious questions are the most important; such as, is a news release newsworthy?

I don’t think these three news releases, all published on the same day last week, even come close to qualifying:

Enrollment Passes Halfway Milestone in Clinical Trial Evaluating the Effect of an Exclusive Human Milk Diet Including a Specialty Fortifier in Term Infants Born with Single Ventricle Congenital Heart Defects

VolitionRx Limited Announces Completion of Sample Collection in Endometriosis Study

BeiGene Initiates New Phase 3 Trial of Anti-PD-1 Antibody Tislelizumab Combined with Chemotherapy as First-line Treatment for Patients with Advanced Squamous Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer in China

Of concern is what I highlighted in red — essentially headlines about biomedical companies starting a study or marking a milestone.

Take note: There’s no completed study. No data. But that doesn’t stop the company CEOs (or physicians with financial ties) from making speculative and optimistic statements like:

  • “we believe (this blood test) will be an essential step toward improved patient diagnosis and care.”
  • “(fortified milk) may result in improved growth, better wound healing, reduced episodes of feeding intolerance … improved long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes … results like these could potentially have long-term health and economic benefits.

How can you talk about outcomes and results when the studies haven’t been done yet?

Is that news or is it premature promotion?

Targeting, leveraging, and optimizing

Earle Holland

Earle Holland

“Starting a clinical trial isn’t news,” said Earle Holland, a former science and medical communications officer at Ohio State University for 35 years.

“Nor is reaching some supposed ‘milestone’ in enrollment.”

It’s worth noting that all three of these ‘news’ releases come from PR Newswire, a for-profit news release distributor owned by Cision, who offer their clients the following:

  • “target and build relationships with the media influencers”
  • “leverage pitching tips to confirm which influencers are right for your company”
  • “increase media pick-up and search visibility”
  • “competitive insights to optimize ongoing campaign performance”

“PR Newswire put out these releases on behalf of companies who want to show investors they’re making progress and still ‘players in the game,’ said Holland.

“News releases are intended to offer real news, and all three of these fail miserably. The only reporters who might show any interest would be business reporters writing for trade publications.”

Pump up and market

JoAnn Rodgers

“I think that these news releases can (and should) be interpreted as ways to pump up stock and market the company,” said Joann Rodgers, a journalist and author who formerly led Johns Hopkins Medicine’s communications and public affairs division.

“But they can also be interpreted (and are) as ways to keep traders, investors and potential investors somewhat better informed about the actual status of a particular drug or device.”

Indeed, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) does require companies to keep investors up-to-date on major developments. This mostly involves annual reports and, in the case of the biomedical industry, often includes significant study findings.

But it would be a stretch to claim these 3 news releases –highlighting studies not even close to completion — fulfill any sort of SEC requirement. A more likely motivation is the “pump up and market” approach mentioned by Rodgers.

And this is not benign. Not only do investors report whiplash when optimistic but incomplete news releases fail to reflect the reality of a product’s prospects, but patients desperate for good news can be badly misled and have expectations falsely raised. We’ve written about these effects a number of times.

This brings up another obvious question worth pondering: If a news release isn’t newsworthy then what is it?

I don’t have the answer to that question. But I think it’s safe to say such documents reflect disconcerting problems with how health care “news” is being disseminated in our society.

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