With a few dollar signs, this story could have been a perfect example of how to write about a small study with interesting findings.
Everyone sleeps, most of us have trouble with it at some point, and the options to remedy the problem can be overwhelming and costly. Drugs have side effects and cognitive behavioral therapy is not always readily available. Mindfulness meditation presents the promise of a do-it-yourself sleep aid. This story nicely explains why the findings are promising but why the study is far from definitive. It’s a nice set up for future research and future stories exploring this line of inquiry.
There is no mention of costs. There were a few good opportunities to introduce costs here. For one, the meditation therapy requires a certified instructor. Find out how much it costs in terms of money and time to join a group like that. It mentions online courses, books, and CDs, and could have mentioned costs for each. And if the results were comparable to sleep medication, make note of how much some of those drugs cost in comparison. The class that was studied is offered by UCLA, which has classes for $165 and free drop-in classes.
In broad strokes, the benefits are satisfactorily described. But a look under the hood reveals a missing explanation of what the “the sleep-problem scale” is and what its point values mean. The story says, “By the end of the study, the mindfulness group was showing a significant improvement — shaving about three points, on average, from their scores on the sleep-problem scale.” By comparison the “group that received standard education lowered their scores by an average of 1 point.” How many points were on the scale? If the people meditating were three points lower on a 50-point scale, that’s not quite as good as three points lower on a 10-point scale. The story does provide an additional point of reference by comparing the benefits to sleep medications and ‘talk therapy.’
The story mentions risks in the context of sleep medication, saying that sleeping pills “can have side effects that are particularly dangerous for older people — such as dizziness and balance problems that can lead to falls, and problems with attention and memory.” By implication, the story is saying that the meditation showed no side effects. (For example, did it make it harder for any of the participants to sleep?) It would have been nice to have that issue clarified.
This is where the story really excels and could be used as a model for other stories. Right in the headline and again in the lead, the story presents one of the key limitations of the study, noting that it is a “small study.” Then it explains how small the study is in the actual story, explaining that it included just “49 older adults with sleep problems.” It breaks down how the study was conducted and notes that the results were published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Internal Medicine. And it explains throughout the various limitations of the study in terms of application to everyday life, including the fact that the meditation — as practiced by the group being studied — required a certified instructor. Explaining that the participants were not aware that their sleep was being studied was another good detail.
It’s common to see stories about sleep spun out of control — i.e. losing sleep can kill you/ruin your life/make you sick/etc. It was nice to see this trope avoided.
It’s clear that the reporter spent some time reviewing existing research on sleep disorders among older adults and in talking to the two main sources: the author of the study and an independent expert who wrote a commentary about the study. The story would have been even stronger had made the expert’s independence abundantly clear.
This aspect of the story was great. In the fifth sentence, the story makes a comparison to alternatives, saying, that on “average, the effects of the mindfulness program were comparable to what’s been seen in studies of sleep medications and ‘talk therapy.’” it makes the same comparison in more detail later in the story and in discussing the availability of different therapies.
The story makes it clear that the type of meditation therapy is available in various forms and even includes a link to the specific therapy from UCLA that was included in the study. In addition, there was a very nice general description of the technique to help readers imagine how it works: “In general, ‘mindfulness’ practices encourage people to focus their attention on the present moment, instead of the past or future, and to take an objective look at their thoughts and emotions.
The story addresses the novelty of the findings by explaining the difference between this relatively new area of mindfulness meditation and the much better understood and thoroughly researched area of cognitive behavioral therapy. A quick segue into what the mindfulness technique is currently used to treat — e.g. anxiety/depression — and generally how effective it is for that application, would also have been useful.
The story does not rely on a press release.