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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Other shortcomings included gung-ho portrayals of preliminary studies (such as unpublished ones presented at professional meetings) and over-enthusiastic quotes from study authors whose comments make their work sound more important than it is.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.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 6, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  General Health  
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From a lay perspective but with a solid grounding in college level science, it seems as though the journalists reporting on science issues such as health don't necessarily understand the studies even when they read them. I've read some studies that went beyond the science I can fully comprehend, so I'm not belittling journalists; it's just that most good studies are written for other scientists. I would hope that journalists not only read the studies, but do additional research on the issues reported, and then any additional research they need to supplement their own backgrounds. The press release should just alert them that a story exists.

A good story about a science issue should get the science right (correlation vs. causation, for example), give a background on previous research and how this changes things, give an explanation of what exactly some obscure or misused terms really mean, state the limitations of the new information, and get the opinions of experts in the field who are unconnected with the study. Unfortunately, I think this definition of a good science story is akin to Anne Elliiot's definition of good company in Austen's Persuasion.

Posted by: esleigh | May 6, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, esleigh.

Here's the Austen quote re good company:

"My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company."

"You are mistaken," said he gently, "that is not good company, that is the best."

Posted by: Jennifer LaRue Huget | May 6, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

I wonder why when detailed studies which challenge common guidelines are released, sometimes with links to the original articles, press reports seem to stress current guidelines and not the results of the study. In short, press reports do not go too far. They retreat to offical guidelines. I am thinking of the HRT and PSA stories which always seem to push traditional treatments to the public, even while the results themselves suggest changes to common practices. The American PSA study actually showed increased mortality in the active as compared to the control group, while the European study showd perhaps a 1 in 50 benefit to the active group. Togther, no effect. But press reports emphasized only the European finding, as if "do no harm" did not matter. "Regression to tradition" is what I call it (and I have taught statistics for years).

Posted by: george11 | May 6, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

The PR may explain why television news people use the Video Press Release in lieu of Actual Journalism, but it fails to explain why Jack Caffrey was right in saying that the entire "swine" flu epidemic was completely and utterly overblown bloviation on the part of the tabloid media!

Posted by: bs2004 | May 6, 2009 2:09 PM | Report abuse

I am in complete agreement that the news of health must not only rely on the press release a journalist who takes turns in notes and articles, he is ready to work based on the fact-finding news. If not then we are facing an inept, the matter goes further, is a question of journalistic ethics, objectivity and transparency in fulfilling their job well and create more quality content in the newspapers, because the rest media such as radio or television is a time spent working for ... Much more research on health issues that affect the lives of people...
Herbal Remedies

Posted by: HerbalRemedies | May 6, 2009 6:16 PM | Report abuse

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