Inept Health Reporting? Blame the PR People!
We rank-and-file journalists are a beleaguered bunch these days. So it's nice when someone -- anyone -- leaps to our defense.
But a new study exploring the role of institutional press releases in shaping media coverage of health studies, though it seems at first to exonerate journalists for sloppy news coverage, in fact raises questions about our diligence.
Researchers at Dartmouth University examined 200 press releases from 20 academic medical centers, rating them on criteria ranging from whether they reported basic facts (such as the number of people participating in a study) to whether they overstated research outcomes.
Here's an example of their findings: "Among the 87 releases about animal or laboratory studies, most (64 of 87) explicitly claimed relevance to human health, yet 90% lacked caveats about extrapolating results to people."
Other shortcomings included gung-ho portrayals of preliminary studies (such as unpublished ones presented at professional meetings) and over-enthusiastic quotes from study authors whose comments make their work sound more important than it is.
Unfortunately, the study did not look at how those failings translate into actual news coverage. The authors mention an earlier report's finding that more than a third of health news stories in the U.S. appeared to rely on press-release accounts of studies rather than on studies themselves. But their research, as we health writers say, establishes neither an association nor a causal relationship between sloppy press releases and sloppy health-news reporting.
In any case, it seems to me that any reporter who bases a story solely on a press release isn't doing his or her job. We all know what PR people are up to -- they want to draw lots of attention to their institutions or clients and count the media hits. It's our job to hold their feet to the fire and sort out their wild claims from the solid truth.
The study suggests that academic PR offices issue fewer press releases overall and particularly reduce the number covering preliminary, uncontrolled and animal studies.
Here's another suggestion: Journalists, read the darned studies!
Though the PR office at the Annals of Internal Medicine, where this work was published on Monday, sent me a very nice (and, I might add, carefully written) press release, I actually took time to read the full study. You can, too.
Let me know what you think.
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