The news story focuses on research presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology, linking high levels of physical activity with increased survival for patients who have been diagnosed with lymphoma.
The headline–“Get active, beat lymphoma?”–is misleading. Even if the study could prove cause and effect (it couldn’t), it didn’t show that exercise “beat” lymphoma.
The story was problematic on several more fronts; all may stem from the fact that the news story appears to be derived nearly entirely from a related news release, and includes some of the misleading information found there. This is a worrisome trend we highlighted on our blog last month.
Journalism is a skilled craft that requires critical thinking and hard work, because reporters have a responsibility to help their readers sort fact from fiction and to place all of this information into context. This story does not meet that bar.
Cost is really not applicable here. The story (and the relevant research) focuses on general levels of physical activity, not specific forms of physical activity.
The story makes no attempt to quantify benefits, relying instead on the same general language found in the news release. For example, the story states:
“People whose physical activity was greater than normal before diagnosis were less likely to have died from lymphoma, or from any other cause, than were those who’d been less active, the study found. People who’d boosted their physical activity level after being diagnosed with lymphoma also were less likely to have died in that three-year span than were those who hadn’t increased their activity level.”
How much less likely were the folks in either group to die of any cause? How much less likely were they to die from lymphoma? Was there a difference in the level of benefit from being active before diagnosis as compared to becoming more active after diagnosis? How did they measure what constituted physical activity? The story doesn’t tell us.
In general, we feel that it is important to discuss potential risks even if those risks are minimal. In this case, you’re talking about a group of people with a very serious illness taking very serious drugs–what should they know about the risks of increasing their physical activity?
The story describes the study as being of “nearly 4,100 people” — paraphrasing the news release’s statement that “researchers studied a cohort of 4087 lymphoma patients.”
In reality, the researchers were only able to collect baseline physical activity data from 3,060 study participants — and got follow-up data from only 1,395. The story also fails to tell readers that this was an observational study, without control groups or interventions.
Instead the story simply tells us “the study couldn’t prove that more exercise actually caused death risk to drop.”
That’s a good start—but we need to know why. What about the study design prevented it from proving the relationship is cause and effect? The story also should have explained that there are limitations to this kind of data: Some people could have been healthier to begin with, and therefore more capable of physical activity than those who were in poorer health–be it from cancer or something else entirely.
That said, we appreciate that the story explicitly states that “Research presented at meetings should be considered preliminary because it has not been subjected to the rigorous scrutiny given to research published in medical journals.”
No disease mongering here.
No independent sources are cited in the story, nor does the story tell readers who funded the relevant study or whether there are any potential conflicts of interest among the researchers. (The study abstract itself doesn’t tell readers who funded the study, though it does list the various industry relationships of the researchers.)
The story is focused on the relationship between physical activity and lymphoma survival rates — but provides no information on how common lymphoma is, what survival rates are or what treatment options are available. There’s simply no context here for readers.
It can be assumed that readers are aware of their options regarding physical activity.
The story addresses this early on with a quote from one of the researchers: “we did not know if physical activity would have an impact on survival in lymphoma patients.” Frankly, we still don’t know that — it was an observational study. But there does appear to be a correlation, and identifying that correlation is what is novel here.
The story heavily relies on a news release issued by the Mayo Clinic.