Press releases often mislead the public on health issues.
“New lung cancer drug improves survival.” This typical newspaper headline offers hope for patients with a disease that kills more than 150,000 Americans every year.
But what if the research described is incomplete, preliminary, or a study of an experimental drug? What if the drug was tested exclusively on animals or in the lab? The results of these types of studies have little relevance for actual lung cancer patients. The sensationalism of the headline misleads readers.
It’s easy to blame newspapers, but the real problem may be the accuracy and completeness of the press releases from universities, medical centers, and scientific meetings that journalists use. These articles can be unbalanced, biased, and incomplete, yet studies suggest that as many as one-third of health-related newspaper stories seem to rely exclusively or heavily on press releases.
We analyzed more than 150 press releases about cancer research from EurekAlert!, an online database for scientific press releases. What we found is troubling. Press releases often describe unpublished, unproven, and incomplete investigations—features not evident to the non-scientist reader.
Preliminary research that involved too few patients was present in two thirds of press releases. Every article we reviewed discussed study strengths, but limitations, costs, risks of treatment, and failed research were rarely noted. Inappropriate, dramatic, or exaggerated titles were present in a majority of reports.
For example, “Circulating tumor cells correlate with poorer survival in pancreatic cancer patients” is the title of a press release in our study and of a subsequent newspaper feature story. Although it may seem reasonable, the story in question described a small preliminary trial, with a difference in survival measured only in days. These data have no current utility for actual patients.
More than half of the releases discussed unpublished data from academic meetings. What many readers don’t know is that as many as 40 percent of national medical meeting abstracts are never published in peer-reviewed journals. That means that they will never undergo scrutiny from independent experts that characterizes final manuscripts in highquality medical journals.
In our study, 90 percent of reports of animal or laboratory studies lacked warnings about applying results to humans. The majority of publicized animal studies never develop into successful human treatments.
Newspapers rely on press releases when reporting medical advances. Future reliance may increase because of the financial pressures on print media, newsroom cutbacks, and the insatiable appetite of the 24-hour news cycle. One study of 165 reporters identifying themselves as health reporters at 122 daily newspapers found that most reported on health half or less than half of the time. Some 80 percent reported no prior training in covering health news.
Media health messages affect patients’ choice of health care, influence physician referrals, and may have direct consequences on a reader’s understanding of available health care options. Some press releases give readers an overoptimistic assessment of therapy. Press releases also appear routinely on medical center or research university websites—frequent sources of health information for consumers.
Press releases are a form of advertising, much of which is relevant and accurate. These reports are one tool to disseminate scholarly investigation to potential patients, the medical community, funding agencies, donors, and media. They increase the likelihood of newspaper coverage and influence its content.
Institutions should use press releases to help journalists develop accurate news. Too often, they disseminate incomplete information without the context required for journalists and their readers to understand and act on it. Bias, marketing strategy, and media hyperbole can interfere with what medical information the public receives.
This piece is adapted from an op-ed in the February 4, 2015, Providence Journal.