NPC Archive Item: Press releases may not report research in an impartial manner

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16th June 2009

A review has found that academic centre press releases often overstate the importance of the findings of their own research, while underemphasising cautions that limit the clinical relevance of the findings.

Journalists and health professionals should be aware that press releases, which are often the basis of health stories in the media, may not provide a fair, accurate and balanced view on the importance of new research findings. Prescribing decisions should be based on information from trusted, independent sources, such as NICE, CKS, SIGN, Cochrane, Clinical Evidence and even ourselves. These organisations, who are either public sector or who have a public sector ethos, set new evidence in the context of the rest of the evidence and have quality assurance procedures in place to ensure that the information and advice they provide is based on an unbiased analysis of all relevant and valid information.

What is the background to this?
The media are an important source of information about medical research for patients and some healthcare professionals. However, medical journalism is often criticised for reporting preliminary works or sensationalising study findings. This study aimed to find out whether the journalists’ sources could have been responsible for such reporting. The authors examined press releases from academic medical centres to determine whether they were measured and unexaggerated.

What does this study find?
The researchers reviewed 200 randomly selected press releases issued from 20 US academic centres. Forty four percent of press releases promoted the results of animal and laboratory research and 56% promoted the results of human research.

Twenty-nine percent of press releases were considered to exaggerate the importance of the study’s findings. Of the press releases about human studies, only 17% concerned randomised controlled trials or meta-analyses. Forty percent reported studies of limited quality e.g. sample size <30, uncontrolled interventions, primary surrogate outcomes or unpublished data. More than half of these (58%) lacked the relevant cautions about the study limitations or relevance to clinical practice. The majority of animal or laboratory studies (74%) claimed relevance to human health, yet 90% lacked caveats about extrapolating results to people.

So what?
This study shows that press releases cannot be relied upon to provide information in an impartial manner. They often promote research that has uncertain relevance to human health and do not provide key facts or acknowledge important limitations. The study did not directly assess the effects of press release quality on subsequent news coverage. However, it is probable that many health news stories rely on press releases as a main source of information. Journalists and health professionals should be aware that press releases and news articles about studies can be misleading and should not use them as a means of informing treatment decisions.

Woloshin S, et al. Press releases by academic medical centers: not so academic? Ann Intern Med 2009;150:613–8

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