This is the weaker of two stories we reviewed on a large study that showed no link between a couple of small alcoholic drinks per week during pregnancy and negative health outcomes. Unlike the Time story reviewed, this one did not adequately analyze the evidence presented or place it into a larger context. The lead sentence overstated the study conclusions by saying the researchers found light drinking does not cause harm, when actually they reported they did not find evidence of harm among the children of light drinkers, The distinction is important. The story does make good use of independent sources.
Drinking and pregnancy are considered mutually exclusive. Any study that shows the contrary is bound to make headlines. This is all the more reason why reporters need to tread carefully in this area. This story, as with most of the coverage on this topic, took pains to make sure readers weren’t confused by the findings. It could have gone the extra step of providing more details about the study.
This does not seem to apply.
The story does not provide readers with specifics. It reports that the children of light drinkers did not appear to have a greater risk of behavioral problems than the children of women who reported not drinking during pregnancy. But what are the risks of problems? Readers are not told. Including a few statistics, for example that the rate of high total difficulties was about 7 percent for sons of light drinkers vs. about 10 percent for sons of non-drinkers would have revealed both the differences and provided a sense of the overall risk; that is, that in both groups the overwhelming majority of children appeared to be fine. In fairness, the main and most reliable finding of the study was failure to show an association between light drinking and adverse behavioral/cognitive effects.
The story fails to quantify the harms of drinking too much alcohol. The whole study was about whether alcohol harms kids, and this should have been quantified in some way.
The story did not explain that this study was part of a larger ongoing study examining women and their children over time. It could have included some of the great context provided in the Time story about the study’s limitations. It alludes to these with its commments from Eva Pressman, but we would have liked to have seen more analysis here. In one respect, though, it does a better job than the other story. It makes it clear that this was a prospective cohort study rather than a less-reliable case-control study by describing when mothers were enrolled and queried about alcohol intake.
This story did not engage in disease-mongering.
On this criterion, this story did better than the other one we reviewed. It includes an independent source: Dr. Eva Pressman, director of maternal/fetal medicine at the University of Rochester. She serves as the voice of moderation, and she says some things that are actually pointed out in the study itself. One thing missing from both of these stories is any mention of who funded the research, but since the funding came from a public agency, we won’t penalize the story. Of course, if the funding had come from an entity connected to the alcoholic beverage industry, disclosure (and heightened skepticism) would have been imperative.
The story outlines the choices women make… stopping all drinking during pregnancy, reducing drinking, or continuing to drink as usual.
This does not seem to apply.
There should have been something in this report about the nature of this study and its place in the broader field of research. Like so many stories like this, it sort of drops out of the sky leaving readers to wonder how seriously they should take the findings. In this case, this is a massive study over a long period of time, and the findings are likely to have serious public policy implications as a result.
The story did not rely on a news release.