Most exaggeration in health news is already present in academic press releases | EurekAlert! Science News

Most exaggeration in health news is already present in academic press releases | EurekAlert! Science News

The researchers suggest that improving the accuracy of academic
press releases "could represent a key opportunity for reducing
misleading health related news."

Health related news has widespread potential to influence health
related behaviour but often misreports the science. It is not known
whether exaggerations - claims going beyond those made in the research
paper - originate in the news stories themselves or in press releases
issued by academic institutions producing the research.

So a team, led by Professors Petroc Sumner and Chris Chambers at
Cardiff University, set out to identify the source (press releases or
news) of distortions, exaggerations, or changes to the main conclusions
drawn from research that could potentially influence a reader's health
related behaviour.

They analysed 462 press releases on biomedical and health related
science issued by 20 leading UK universities in 2011, alongside their
associated peer reviewed research papers and 668 national news stories.

They focused on three common types of exaggeration: giving direct
advice to readers to change their behaviour, making causal claims from
correlational (observational) data, and making inference about humans
from animal findings.

They found that 40% of press releases contained exaggerated advice,
33% contained exaggerated causal claims, and 36% contained exaggerated
inference to humans from animal research, compared with the
corresponding peer reviewed journal articles.

And when press releases contained exaggeration it was more likely
that the news would too (58% for advice, 81% for causal claims, and 86%
for inference to humans). But when press releases did not contain
exaggeration, rates of exaggeration in news were only 17%, 18%, and 10%,
respectively. However, there was little evidence that exaggeration in
press releases increased the uptake of news.

The authors point out that this is an observational study so no definitive conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect.

Although it is common to blame media outlets and their journalists
for news perceived as exaggerated, sensationalised, or alarmist, "our
principle findings were that most of the inflation detected in our study
did not occur de novo in the media but was already present in the text
of the press releases produced by academics and their establishments,"
they write.

The blame - if it can be meaningfully apportioned - they say, "lies
mainly with the increasing culture of university competition and self
promotion, interacting with the increasing pressures on journalists to
do more with less time."

The scientific community has the ability to improve this situation,
they conclude. Press releases could be a primary target to improve the
accuracy of science news, with potential benefit for public health.

In an accompanying editorial, Ben Goldacre, Research Fellow at the
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and author of the book
Bad Science, argues that academics should be made accountable for
exaggerations in press releases about their own work.

Academic press releases should be treated as a part of the
scientific publication, he says. They should include named individuals
from the original research paper; they should be linked to the paper
they are promoting; and presented as online data appendices, in full
view of peers. There should also be opportunity for feedback in the
publishing journal.

"Collectively this would produce an information trail, and
accountability among peers and the public," he writes. And he speculates
whether a public ranking of press releases "might change academic
behaviour, and create an environment where researchers finally act to
prevent patients and the public being routinely misled."