Health and Medical News and Resources

General interest items edited by Janice Flahiff

[Reblog] Misleading BMJ news releases may be one reason journalists report on more observational studies

From the 24 January 2014 post at TheHealthNewsReview Blog  by Gary Schwitzer

[At least 16 comments on this post, click on the link above to read them]

Just a few days ago, a paper in the journal PLoS One, “Media Coverage of Medical Journals: Do the Best Articles Make the News?” showed how journalists are more likely to report on observational studies than on randomized clinical trials.  The authors suggest this shows a systematic bias to report on weaker evidence.

And here’s one reason why that may happen.

This week the BMJ sent out a news release on a paper from the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, one of the specialist journals it publishes. And I’ve been waiting for days to address it – waiting for the journal’s embargo time to pass so that I’m not violating that sacred trust.

The headline of the news release:  HRT cuts risk of repeat knee/hip replacement surgery by 40%.

 

Nope.  Sorry, BMJ news release writers.  That’s an overstatement, to be kind.  An inaccuracy, to be accurate. That’s not what the study showed, because it wasn’t equipped to show that anything “cut risk.”  Proof of cutting risk would be proof of cause and effect.  And the observational study in question can’t do that.

Don’t blame the authors of the journal article. They didn’t use cause-and-effect language.  They concluded: “HRT is associated with an almost 40% reduction.”  (My emphasis added.) That’s the way you describe the results of an observational study. That’s what we try to teach journalists and the public with a primer that’s been on our site for years. Maybe the BMJ should have its news release writers read it.

The researchers went even further, for any writer – journal news release writers included – who bothered to read the study.  The research team wrote: “The main limitation of this study is its observational nature.”

To be clear, this was a large study with long followup.  This could be a head-turner in medical circles.

But it still is what it is – a study that can only show statistical association.

And association ≠ causation.

We’ve written about this problem with BMJ news releases in the past, and will continue to do so until they get it right.  Past examples:

As I wrote in one of these posts:  Journals could help lift all ships – or they can (and sometimes do) help us all drown in a daily tsunami of global miscommunication about health news.

 

 

 

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January 28, 2014 Posted by | Medical and Health Research News | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Medical journal news releases shouldn’t just try to make news but to make news reporting better

Medical news press releases do strongly affect health/medical news items in the “popular press”.
All the more reason, as this article points out, that these press releases need to be as complete and accurate as possible!

From the 31 Janauary 2012 HealthNewsReview.org*** article

Not to be missed:  last week’s BMJ published an analysis by a team at Dartmouth Medical School led by Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz – “Influence of medical journal press releases on the quality of associated newspaper coverage.”***

This is an important contribution to our understanding of the food chain of the dissemination of research news to the American public:  medical journals feed journalists who feed the American public what they get out of journals – sometimes driven largely by what’s in journal news releases.  If the information at the source is complete and high quality, the flow of information from journalists to the public is more likely to be complete and high quality as well.  But this analysis also suggests that “low quality press releases might make (associated newspaper stories) worse.”

Excerpts:

Higher quality press releases issued by medical journals were associated with higher quality reporting in subsequent newspaper stories. In fact, the influence of press releases on subsequent newspaper stories was generally stronger than that of journal abstracts. Fundamental information such as absolute risks, harms, and limitations was more likely to be reported in newspaper stories when this information appeared in a medical journal press release than when it was missing from the press release or if no press release was issued. Furthermore, our data suggest that poor quality press releases were worse than no press release being issued: fundamental information was less likely to be reported in newspaper stories when it was missing from the press release than where no press release was issued at all (although the findings were generally not statistically significant).

Reporting on medical research is challenging:…

***HealthNewsReview.org is a group of independent professional journalists who review medical stories in newspapers, magazines, etc

Health News Review
Please see my earlier blog posting for a fuller description

***Influence of medical journal press releases on the quality of associated newspaper coverage: retrospective cohort study

  • Source:  British Medical Journal
    Objective
    To determine whether the quality of press releases issued by medical journals can influence the quality of associated newspaper stories.
    Design
    Retrospective cohort study of medical journal press releases and associated news stories.
    Setting
    We reviewed consecutive issues (going backwards from January 2009) of five major medical journals (Annals of Internal Medicine, BMJ, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, JAMA, and New England Journal of Medicine) to identify the first 100 original research articles with quantifiable outcomes and that had generated any newspaper coverage (unique stories ≥100 words long). We identified 759 associated newspaper stories using Lexis Nexis and Factiva searches, and 68 journal press releases using Eurekalert and journal website searches. Two independent research assistants assessed the quality of journal articles, press releases, and a stratified random sample of associated newspaper stories (n=343) by using a structured coding scheme for the presence of specific quality measures: basic study facts, quantification of the main result, harms, and limitations.
    Main outcome
    Proportion of newspaper stories with specific quality measures (adjusted for whether the quality measure was present in the journal article’s abstract or editor note).
    Results
    We recorded a median of three newspaper stories per journal article (range 1-72). Of 343 stories analysed, 71% reported on articles for which medical journals had issued press releases. 9% of stories quantified the main result with absolute risks when this information was not in the press release, 53% did so when it was in the press release (relative risk 6.0, 95% confidence interval 2.3 to 15.4), and 20% when no press release was issued (2.2, 0.83 to 6.1). 133 (39%) stories reported on research describing beneficial interventions. 24% mentioned harms (or specifically declared no harms) when harms were not mentioned in the press release, 68% when mentioned in the press release (2.8, 1.1 to 7.4), and 36% when no press release was issued (1.5, 0.49 to 4.4). 256 (75%) stories reported on research with important limitations. 16% reported any limitations when limitations were not mentioned in the press release, 48% when mentioned in the press release (3.0, 1.5 to 6.2), and 21% if no press release was issued (1.3, 0.50 to 3.6).
    Conclusion
    High quality press releases issued by medical journals seem to make the quality of associated newspaper stories better, whereas low quality press releases might make them worse.

February 8, 2012 Posted by | Medical and Health Research News | , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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