While the overarching theme may be the same – the puzzling editorial decision-making in the New York Times Well blog/column – the specific topics change – and so, provide more examples for instruction.
Bone Drugs May Have Added Benefit: Lower Pneumonia Risk is the headline of the latest troubled piece that caught my eye. The opening line:
Osteoporosis drugs such as Fosamax and Actonel may have an additional benefit: A new study suggests they are associated with a reduced risk for pneumonia.
The entire story used 220 words. There is very little that can be covered effectively in a news story about a biomedical research study in so few words. The story did manage to confuse quite effectively.
Even that opening line mixes the fact that the study only showed a statistical association with the assertion that it showed cause-and-effect. When it pointed to a possible “additional benefit” from the use of osteoporosis drugs – or bisphosphanates – it crossed a line.
At the end, it included a quote from one of the study co-authors and paraphrased him stressing “that the study is observational and does not prove cause and effect.”
But the story used cause-and-effect language throughout:
If the study did not prove cause-and-effect, which it did not, then you can’t prove benefit, risk reduction or lowering, or an effect.
This is a common failure in the Times’ Well blog/column. We regularly point to our primer to help journalists do a better job on observational studies, Observational studies: Does the language fit the evidence? Association vs. causation.
Worse, though, in this case, is that in the entire story there was only discussion of benefits from bisphosphanates and not one mention of side effects or potential harms. We have regularly warned readers that if you ever read a story about a drug study that only discussed potential benefits – but not harms – you should run for the hills because there’s no such thing.
And the potential side effects and harms of bisphosphanates are well known.
This is just a snapshot of the voluminous and evolving medical literature on the harms of bisphosphanates.
But the New York Times never acknowledged that any harms exist – only benefits – and now unproven “additional benefits.”
As I always do, I checked the reader comments in response to this piece. The Times should learn from the experience of its readers. Comment excerpts:
Finally, with all the resources of the Times, the story only quoted one source – a co-author of the paper. No independent perspective was included.
Why was this newsworthy – when the world is focused on the COVID-19 pandemic? Why was this worth even 220 words now? Why did the story explain that the study didn’t prove cause and effect, but then used cause and effect language six times (including the headline)? Why no mention of harms? Why was there no independent perspective with no conflict of interest?
These are the kinds of questions that should be answered for readers. The Times, which is delivering some stellar journalism on COVID-19, should abandon 220-word stories like this one. It only adds to the cacophony of noise from not-ready-for-prime-time health care news.