This STAT story does an exemplary job of describing, and putting into context, yet another observational study of the possible links between coffee consumption and health, this one concluding that overall, whether decaf or regular, coffee is associated with reduced risk of death from heart disease, diabetes, and neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease, although not cancer. The great strengths of the story include links to notable previous studies that explain the confusing “backstory” of the coffee consumption/health risk debate among researchers and consumers, along with one of the best definitions of the limitations of observational studies this reviewer has read in a news article. The STAT story gets the quantification and qualification issues down, but also goes the extra mile in noting a strong example of how observational studies can fail consumers and professionals (post-menopausal hormone safety), and in entertainingly giving readers a useful take-home message — drink up, but but understand that while the health benefits are “strongly suggestive,” they are “not definitive.” Extra credits goes to STAT for noting the absolute mortality risk reduction this way: “coffee would [keep] 1 person in 1000 from dying” each year — something a competing CNN story on the same study lacked.
Readers and viewers of mass media have been nearly whiplashed by claims and counterclaims related to the benefits and risks of coffee drinking. A few studies over the past several decades have concluded that, at least in large amounts, coffee can be “toxic,” but most of the coverage has focused on the drink’s possible health benefits, but in ways that led to substantial confusion. The new analysis, described in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, has some significant statistical assets not present in previous studies, including a subset analysis of non-smokers’ death risks. Its central finding — that coffee safely confers health benefits (essentially reduced death risks for some major categories of disease) even in relatively high doses among non-smokers — is likely to be reassuring to coffee addicts — and their physicians.
Arguably, most people know how much their java habit costs them every day, and neither this STAT story nor the competing CNN coverage mentioned costs. Like hazelnut cream, some mention of the overall cost of the coffee habit in the U.S. would have added some flavor, but this omission gets a pass.
STAT’s story, like the coverage in CNN, gets the details, strengths and weaknesses of the data right, but STAT’s piece more precisely quantifies the findings and goes to exceptional lengths to clearly describe what an observational study can and cannot do, and did and did not do in this current piece of analysis.
This STAT story explained the slightly increased risk of death in those participants in the current study who drank very high amounts of coffee,
STAT does a fine job of noting the sources of information used in the new analysis, and repeating — in novel ways — the shortcomings and strengths of the findings. This kind of repetition, although frowned upon in journalistic circles because of space constraints, should be used more often where appropriate to remind readers of the context of each health claim in a story. The CNN story covering this research did a creditable job of describing the data, but how refreshing it is to see how smoothly a news article can reinforce take-home messages in a way readers will understand and remember.
The STAT story included not just any “outside” expert comment, but chose a co-author of a seminal 2013 study, whose professional credibility added to the story’s. And unlike the CNN story, it offered details of the ongoing epidemiological studies from which the new data were drawn.
We thought that a comparison of alternatives to coffee was beyond the scope of the story.
Coffee is widely available, and that’s obvious from the story.
The STAT story, like its CNN counterpart, duly noted the novelty of the researchers’ analysis of the non-smoker subset of records analysis, and STAT did so with a bit more easily-accessible language.
The STAT story was well researched, offering links that could form a small “bibliography” of relevant studies and using an outside commentator to put the new findings in perspective.