Journalists do a lousy job reporting on health studies, researchers find

JAMA Internal Medicine

Researchers found a lot to be dissatisfied with in a review of nearly 2,000 stories about “new medical treatments, tests, products, and procedures.” Most stories were “unsatisfactory on 5 of 10 review criteria: costs, benefits, harms, quality of the evidence, and comparison of the new approach with alternatives,” Gary Schwitzer writes in a report published by JAMA Internal Medicine.

Some of the problems researchers from found in the study, which examined reports in print, Web and broadcast media:

  • Stories “often framed benefits in the most positive light”
    It’s important to report on absolute risk, not just relative risk, the study warns. Here’s a guide to understanding the difference.
  • Reports rarely explain the limitations of observational studies
    Lots of news outlets reported on a Mayo Clinic study published last summer about the effects of coffee on mortality, and “Each story used language suggesting cause and effect had been established, although it had not,” Schwitzer writes. (“Heavy coffee consumption linked to higher death risk,” USA Today wrote, and it was far from alone).
    The research “reported a ‘positive (statistical) association,’ Schwitzer wrote last year. “That’s not causation.”
  • Stories based on press releases or one interview
    Eight percent of the stories studied “apparently relied solely or largely on news releases as the source of information.” Another problem the study ID’d: Coverage of new technology is often “Fawning.”
  • Stories “often provide cheerleading for local researchers and businesses”
    A Los Angeles Times story about a drug that hoped to ease pain from menstrual cramps “provided no data but quoted a company vice president, the only person quoted, who said that the drug could be a “breakthrough,” the study says. Journalists, it says, “should be more skeptical of what they are told by representatives of the health care industry.”

Related: Why journalists drive scientists crazy, in graphs | The 10 biggest science-reporting mistakes (and how to avoid them)

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  • Venktesh tirumala

    True! Journalists are busy in doing their masters appeasement and they don’t care for the society and their duty towards the goodness for the folks. truly appreciate this post! @ljatlanta:disqus @lunarcamelco:disqus @venkteshtirumala:disqus @disqus_xWIjS6JhNT:disqus Thanks

  • lunarcamelco

    “Coverage of new technology is often ‘Fawning.’” Wow, what a shock. Who *ever* could’ve predicted that an industry increasingly dependent on young journalists who are subsidized by Mom and Dad (as opposed to, say, young journalists with good heads on their shoulders) would have a problem with that?! Who ever would’ve thought paying salaries that make independence inconceivable would attract people who aren’t very independent thinkers?

  • ljatlanta

    Journalism programs at least make an attempt to give journalists the tools to do a better job of reporting on studies. I’m the world’s oldest journalism undergraduate, back in school at 62 years old after retiring from a long career in IT. In the program I’m in there are several required courses in research which cover the uses and misuses of statistics, putting together lit reviews so that new studies can be viewed in context, logical fallacies, and a number of other things a journalist needs in order to properly frame a study.

    So when journalists write click bait articles on recent research it isn’t really excusable. My own view is that every time reporters are faced with a new studies they need to do a rapid literature review so that they at least have a comparison with what has been found in other studies. It only takes a few minutes to read a dozen or so abstracts.

  • monicascicom

    i agree with this for the most part but must point out that the term ‘link’ does not imply causation.

  • Medicalquack

    Yes you end up with quantitated justifications for tings not true and enter the journobot as well. Media companies are needing revenue streams and thus we have “click bait” out there galore..and we are buried with data news stories that are cheaper to produce. These two links will help bring you up to date.