Important study facts often missing in media reports about medical research

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, VT/HANOVER, NH -- News stories about medical research, often based on initial findings presented at professional conferences, frequently omit basic facts about the study and fail to highlight important limitations, warn Dartmouth researchers in the latest issue of the Medical Journal of Australia. Such omissions can mislead the public and distort the actual significance of the research, they caution.

Dr. Lisa Schwartz and Dr. Steven Woloshin, both Associate Professors of Medicine at Dartmouth Medical School (Hanover, New Hampshire) and at the VA Outcomes Group (White River Junction, Vermont), writing in the June 4, 2006 issue of MJA, studied media coverage of research presented at scientific meetings.

"Scientific meetings are an important forum for researchers to exchange ideas and present work in progress. But much of the work presented is not ready for public consumption," said Schwartz. "The studies have undergone limited review and findings may change substantially by the time the final report is published in a medical journal." And, she noted, "Some meeting presentations are never published at all."

Nonetheless, scientific meeting research receives extensive news media coverage. "Unless journalists are careful to provide basic study facts and highlight limitations the public may be misled about the meaning, importance and validity of the research", said Woloshin. For their study, the team analyzed newspaper, TV and radio stories that appeared in the US for research reports from five major scientific meetings in 2002 and 2003 to see if basic study facts (eg., size, design) were reported; whether cautions about inherent study weaknesses were noted; and if the news stories were clear about the preliminary stage of the research.

The researchers found that basic study facts were often missing. For example, a third of reports failed to mention study size; 40% did not quantify the main result at all.

Important study limitations were often missing. For example, only 6% (1/17) of the news stories about animal studies noted that results might not apply to humans. And only 2 of 175 stories about unpublished studies noted that the study was unpublished. Schwartz and Woloshin, who frequently present to the media on how to understand and accurately report research results, say that while reporters can and should do better, another reason for misinterpreted or "over-hyped" research is its early release at professional meetings that reporters are encouraged to attend.

"It is not hard to understand why research presented at scientific meetings garners extensive media attention," they write. "Researchers benefit from the attention because it is a mark of academic success, their academic affiliates benefit because good publicity attracts patients and donors, and research funders public and private benefit when they can show a good return on their investments. The meeting organizers benefit too; extensive media coverage attracts more advertisers, and higher profile scientists for the following year, guaranteeing more dramatic reports and ultimately more press."

Moreover, they note, "the public has a strong appetite for medical news and scientific meetings provide the media with an easy source of provocative material."

Given the reality that a decrease in media coverage of scientific meetings is not likely, the authors urge reporters and editors to make sure their stories include three things: (1) basic study facts: what kind of study was done, how many subjects were included, what was the main result; (2) cautions about study designs with intrinsic limitations; and (3) clear statements about the preliminary stage of the work under discussion.

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Drs. Woloshin and Schwartz were supported by Veterans Affairs Career Development Awards in Health Services Research and Development and Robert Wood Johnson Generalist Faculty Scholar Awards. This study was supported by a grant from the National Cancer Institute and from a Research Enhancement Award from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Contact: Dr. Lisa Schwartz 802-296-5178 lisa.schwartz@dartmouth.edu


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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