The headline says “fish helps reduce risk” and the body of the story talks about “effect.” Both are inaccurate.
You can’t establish cause and effect – such as risk reduction – in an observational study.
You can point to a statistical association. Period. If that’s too wordy or geeky, don’t report the story. Because to say more than that is inaccurate.
We urge all journalists to read our primer, “Does the Language Fit the Evidence? Association Versus Causation.”
We’ve written about miscommunication about observational studies many times. This is the kind of story that gives readers health news fatigue.
Not applicable. The cost of fish in the diet is not in question.
The language matters.
The story states: “The researchers found no effect in men, and no effect of omega-3 consumption on hyperplastic polyps.” (emphasis added)
Observational studies can’t prove cause and effect, so language like this just confuses the communication of the findings.
Not applicable. The harms of fish in the diet are not really in question, although some research has raised concerns about possible toxic effects of mercury found in some species.
Not one word about the limitations of drawing conclusions from observational studies.
Not applicable. In 223 words, there really wasn’t much meaningful background given at all about colon polyps.
No independent source was quoted.
The story didn’t discuss any other research in the field of colon polyp risk reduction – or even what other observational studies may have suggested about other strong associations. And there was nothing on whether these results apply to fish oil supplements, which is how many people get their omega-3s instead of eating fish.
Availability of fish is not currently in question, although its future availability has been questioned considering the rate we are overharvesting wild stocks. Stories that don’t critically evaluate these kinds of studies might conceivably contribute to the problem.
The story at least provided one line of context about past research in this field: “Animal studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids may have anti-cancer effects, but the results from human epidemiological studies have been inconclusive.”
It does not appear that the story relied on a news release. We couldn’t find one from the Journal. And the news release from Vanderbilt was actually far more complete than the NY Times story.