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The start of a study is often not newsworthy – even when you bring God into it

Gary Schwitzer is the founder of HealthNewsReview.org and has been its publisher for 14 years. He tweets as @garyschwitzer or as @HealthNewsRevu.

On the day a study begins, there isn’t much you can say about it. There is no evidence. There is a hypothesis. You could talk about the protocol – how the study will be done. You can’t jump to any conclusions.

This article questions why news organizations report on the first day of a study.  This article is not – don’t miss this point – it is not an article against prayer. It’s not mocking prayer. It is not devaluing anyone’s belief in the power of prayer. I’m publishing this on a Sunday – a day many view as a day of prayer.  Some would say that in this era every day should be a day of prayer.

But that is not what this article is about. It is about editorial decision-making.

And NPR gets an F for its story, Clinical Study Considers The Power Of Prayer To Combat COVID-19.

Why?

First, the study hasn’t even begun. Why could this not wait until there is evidence in hand?

Second, it may never begin. The researcher must recruit 1,000 study participants and for that he needs cooperating hospitals. NPR acknowledged that the study “first has to find hospitals willing to participate.” If the researcher doesn’t complete that task, the study, as proposed, won’t happen. Again, why draw attention to this now?

Third, the quality of the evidence that would come out of such a study is subject to scrutiny – and skepticism, as you’ll see below in what other clinician-scientists have written. But NPR didn’t quote any other physicians or scientists.

Fourth, a single-source story isn’t good journalism on any topic.  On a medical research study, we have often said that it is single-source journalism is malpractice.  And that is what NPR delivered – with only the prayer study researcher being interviewed. It would have been very easy for NPR to have found many researchers willing to comment on this idea.  At least NPR did note that the researcher was met with skepticism even at home:

“Even from my wife, who’s a physician herself,” he says. “She was skeptical. She was, like, ‘OK, what is it that you’re looking at?”

Fifth, with a flood of COVID-19 news every day making it difficult for news consumers to make sense of what’s important, why would NPR consider day one of a study – any study – as newsworthy?

Many physicians, scientists and others discussed the study on Twitter. And these comments introduce an entirely different line of questioning about why this study was considered newsworthy by NPR. Here are some excerpts:

Aaron Carroll, MD, who is a regular contributor to the New York Times, wrote:

Another physician tweeted:

One researcher quoted from – and linked to – a scientific paper based on a systematic review of 10 past studies on “the effects of intercessory prayer as an additional intervention for people with health problems already receiving routine health care.”

A public health communications consultant introduced the subject of built-in bias in the study:

One observer asked one of the most basic questions about the protocol:

Someone simply tweeted:  “NPR, what happened to you?”

There were countless responses to the NPR story – with many other perspectives.  If you are interested,  you can look them up yourself.

As always with the focus of our project, this article asks journalists to think more carefully about what they’re publishing on health/medical/science topics, and how they’re doing it.  And we ask news consumers to apply critical thinking to anything even hinting at a possible outcome when they learn that the study hasn’t even started yet. And if you’re following a news organization that does this regularly,  you may want to look elsewhere.

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