The quality of scientific reporting, especially of medical reporting, is of great import to the public, but that is only one reason among many to care about media coverage quality.
False or sub-quality reporting can lead to inaccurate beliefs, panic and a general sense of mistrust towards scientists within the general public. The anti-vaccination movement is a great example of how dangerous it can be to report poorly on medical findings or the retraction thereof. Truly, it is in the scientific community’s best interest to ensure that their findings are covered accurately.
A study, recently published in BMJ, explored whether the quality of medical journal press releases affected the subsequent quality of newspaper coverage. This study highlights the importance of the press release, or rather the importance of the press officer, as a mediator between journalists and scientists.
Dr. Lisa M. Schwartz and her team of researchers conducted a retrospective cohort study in order to assess medical media coverage quality. They looked at the news coverage of 100 studies published in five journals: Annals of Internal Medicine, BMJ, Journal of National Cancer Institute, JAMA and New England Journal of Medicine.
First, they identified 759 newspaper stories and 68 journal press releases. Then, they analyzed a random sample of 343 newspaper articles. Independent research assistants judged the quality of the journal articles, their press releases and the subsequent newspaper stories by using a rigorous coding scheme.
In this coding scheme, the reporting of basic study facts, study limitations, results, and potential harms and benefits were used to determine journalism quality.
Of the 343 newspaper articles sampled, 71% were written about journal articles where a press release had been issued. Of these, only 9% reported the absolute risks associated with the main result(s) when it was not present in the press release. When the absolute risks were included in the press release, 53% of journalists reported them.
What about the potential harms identified in a study? When they were mentioned in the press release, 68% of journalists mentioned them in their article, but only 24% mentioned potential harms when there were not. If there was no press release for a study, 36% of journalists reported potential harms.
As for the limitations of a study, 256 out fo the 343 newspaper stories, or 75%, mentioned them. When they looked at the impact of a press release, they found that 48% of journalists mentioned limitations while only 16% bothered to do so when they were not mentioned in the press release. There was only a slight difference when journalists read the paper on their own, with 21% of articles reporting limitations.
In the spirit of this study, here are some of its limitations!
The researchers acknowledge that it is possible that some journalists might use non-journal press releases to inform their writing. These sorts of press releases were not included in the study.
In addition, they only looked at newspaper articles, omitting broadcast journalism, web journalism and blogging. The growing importance of alternative news sources, such as web journalism and blogging, should not be ignored. I, for one, would love to see someone conduct a study on the accuracy of online scientific journalism.
What can the medical community do to improve media coverage quality?
This study suggests that press releases have a huge impact on the quality of reporting. In order to make sure that the general public is well informed about breakthroughs and setbacks, press officers must make sure that essential elements like limitations, absolute risks and potential benefits as well as potential harms of a treatment or disease are systematically included in press releases. In the absence of a press release, scientists should ensure that their abstracts contain all relevant and important information.
The alternative would be to ensure not only that journalists read the original journal articles but also that they understand the material enough to include these essential elements.
Clearly, the standardization of press release content should be implemented soon. How else will the public maintain, or in some cases regain, their trust in the media and the medical community?
Schwartz, L., Woloshin, S., Andrews, A., & Stukel, T. (2012). Influence of medical journal press releases on the quality of associated newspaper coverage: retrospective cohort study BMJ, 344 (jan27 1) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.d8164