We don’t know who writes the headlines for online stories at WSJ.com, but the dissonance between the headline and the first sentence in this story is striking.
Headline: Strawberries Fight Cancer
1st sentence: Strawberries have the potential to prevent esopageal cancer, according to a preliminary study.
“Potential” and “preliminary” are key themes – yet they were never fully developed in the story. This is VERY preliminary work – so much so that its newsworthiness can be called into question. But if this is going to be reported, it requires far more caveats than what this story delivered.
One could ask, “What’s the harm in a story about potential benefits from strawberries?”
The potential harm is the loss of journalistic and scientific credibility. The study didn’t prove what the headline trumpets. There are serious limitations to this kind of research, conducted in only 36 people. The daily drumbeat of stories like this dulls the senses of readers, who become numb to the continuous thread of cures and scares.
That’s a harm worth worrying about.
Not applicable because the cost of strawberries is not in question.
Insufficient. All we’re told is that “29 out of 36 participants experienced a decrease in histological grade of the precancerous lesion, or a slowing in the growth of the lesion.” We’re not told what the grade was to begin with nor what it decreased to nor how many of the 29 had what degree of decrease. And again, there was no discussion about what’s known at all about the potential benefits of treating precancerous esophageal lesions.
Not applicable. We don’t know what the harms of strawberry consumption would be.
This is the weak spot of the story.
First, it was based on a talk at a scientific meeting. There was no mention of the limitations of drawing conclusions from such data which have not undergone rigorous peer review. See our primer on this topic.
Second, it was a study of 36 people. The only caveat mentioned in the story was the researcher’s comment that “larger, randomized placebo-controlled studies are needed to confirm the results.” No kidding! The size of the study calls the newsworthiness of the story into question.
Finally, the story only reported results on an intermediate endpoint – decrease in histological grade of the precancerous lesion. Think about that. 36 people – 29 of whom had a change in cells in a precancerous lesion. There was no discussion of what happens to precancerous lesions over time. No discussion that a small, short-term study like this can’t establish any outcomes like survival. Yet that glaring headline – “Strawberries Fight Cancer.”
There is no disease-mongering about esophageal cancer in the story.
No independent source is cited.
Readers aren’t given any context about the diagnosis and treatment of precancerous esophageal lesions. From this story, some readers might guess that strawberries are the only hope.
Not applicable. The availability of strawberries is not in question. The story notes that a strawberry-industry-funded agency supplied the fruit for the study. One online commenter on the WSJ site wrote, “If you need someone to ‘contribute’ strawberries for research .. you already know the outcome.”
At least the story noted that “Previous work showed that freeze-dried strawberries were able to significantly inhibit tumor development in rats.” So there was no claim that this was first-in-its-field research.
Not applicable. We can’t be sure of the extent to which the story may have relied on a news release. We do know this: