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‘Bad’ medical reporting – a history of shooting the messenger?

Journalists are having an increasingly hard time producing high-quality health stories. Medical journal articles feature in many health stories but new research shows their press releases may contribute…

Journals can make it easier for reporters to do a good job by providing balanced information and accurate media releases designed to inform. NS Newsflash/Flickr

Journalists are having an increasingly hard time producing high-quality health stories. Medical journal articles feature in many health stories but new research shows their press releases may contribute to poor quality news.

The reasons for the dearth of trustworthy news stories include lack of time and column space, the need to interpret complex research data, statistics and terminology, and difficulty getting access to expert opinions. But the biggest reason is the way the internet has revolutionised the media over the past decade.

As the internet changes the way people access news, traditional media has also changed. The shifting format of reporting, where stories are simultaneously used for traditional media as well as the internet, means news reporters are often called upon to comply with shorter timelines. Where print journalists once worked to daily deadlines, their newspaper websites are now updated regularly through the day as well as when news breaks, giving reporters little time to prepare their stories.

Newspapers, radio and television news are also losing audiences and advertising at an unprecedented rate. Here and abroad, these falling revenue streams are forcing media outlets to reduce staff. The pressure on journalists and editors to produce stories quickly means quality can be easily compromised.

Work done by Media Doctor Australia (I am one of the founders of the site) over the past eight years has repeatedly demonstrated the generally poor quality of health news stories in the Australian media.

But the problems don’t rest entirely with the journalists and their employers. There’s now evidence that some of the blame lies with researchers themselves, as well as research organisations and journals, all of which stand to benefit significantly from high media profiles.

Earlier this year, the British Medical Journal published the results of research looking at the influence of media releases on health news reporting.

Lead authors Lisa Schwartz and Steve Woloshin are American professors with a strong background in this area. They rated the quality of media releases from five top medical journals – separating them into high quality, low quality or no press release - and then compared the quality of news stories about research articles in these journals.

Print journalists once worked to daily deadlines but their newspaper websites are now updated regularly, giving reporters little time to prepare stories. Wesley Fryer

Not surprisingly, high-quality media releases resulted in high-quality news stories. But news stories from low-quality press releases were worse than stories with no press releases.

The authors said the “fundamental information including absolute risks, harms, and limitations was more likely to be reported in newspaper stories when this information appeared in a medical journal press release than when it was missing from the press release or if no press release was issued."

While the results were generally not statistically significant, they reflect previous findings of news stories on journal articles presenting incomplete information, with complex data being misinterpreted or ignored.

Research at Media Doctor has highlighted an ongoing problem with health stories reporting meaningful research data.

Schwartz says reporting “on medical research is challenging: newspapers need to reach readers who vary widely in, for example, statistical literacy and reading levels. But these issues are not unique to medical news. Journalists constantly report quantitative information. Imagine the sports section without scores, player statistics, or team standing tables; or political polls without numbers.”

Journalists should be cautious about accepting claims in press releases. Research has shown that press releases from academic centres can contain exaggerated claims and medical journal articles also tend to play down risks and limitations.

If journals fail to highlight these issues, it makes it harder for journalists to do their jobs properly. The Media Doctor team has previously expressed the view that both journal editorial staff and authors should take responsibility for improving this situation.

The public deserves to be well informed about the research it funds. Researchers and journals can make it easier for journalists to do a good job by providing balanced information and accurate media releases designed to inform rather than increase media coverage.

Information should be complete, accessible and facilitate the correct interpretation of results rather than focusing on what might be seen as newsworthy. The media is main source of information about new health interventions for most people. High-quality news provides a clearer picture of health choices, which is in everybody’s interest.

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