NOTE TO READERS: When this project lost substantial funding at the end of 2018, I lost the ability to continue publishing criteria-driven news story reviews and PR news release reviews - once the bread-and-butter of the site going back to 2006. The 3,200 archived reviews, while still educational, are getting old and difficult for me to technically maintain on the back end of the website. So I am announcing that I plan to remove these reviews from the site by April 1, 2021. The blog and the toolkit - two of the most popular features on the site - will remain. If you wish to peruse the reviews before they disappear, please do so by the end of March 2021. After that date you may still be able to access them via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine - https://archive.org/web/.
Read Original Story

Strawberries Fight Cancer, Study Finds

Rating

2 Star

Strawberries Fight Cancer, Study Finds

Our Review Summary

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.

 

Why This Matters

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.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

Not applicable because the cost of strawberries is not in question.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

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.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Applicable

Not applicable.  We don’t know what the harms of strawberry consumption would be.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

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.”

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

There is no disease-mongering about esophageal cancer in the story.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

No independent source is cited.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

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.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Applicable

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.”

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

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.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Not Applicable

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:

  1. No one was quoted – only paraphrasing of the lead researcher.
  2. The headline of the Ohio State news release was better – more cautious – than the WSJ’s:

    Strawberries May Slow Precancerous Growth in Esophagus

Total Score: 2 of 6 Satisfactory

Comments

Please note, comments are no longer published through this website. All previously made comments are still archived and available for viewing through select posts.