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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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4 Comments sorted by

  1. Don Aitkin

    writer, speaker and teacher

    A good piece. I would add three comments.

    First, for years now I have urged myself to write down the date and point of the latest medical 'breakthrough' as reported on television news, and then, five years later, go back to see what, if anything, had happened as a consequence of the breakthrough. My guess is that very little would have happened. In short, news by media release is a problem, as the essay points out.

    Second, I think that these medical stories are something of an exception to…

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  2. Cris Kerr

    Volunteer Advocate for the value of Patient Testimony & Sustaining our Public Healthcare Systems

    An excellent topic and article, thank you Amanda.

    For a few hundred dollars any website start-up can reproduce media releases by theme and topic and monetize that through ad space or other commercial partnership arrangements.

    Asking talented journalists to pump out or rehash media (promotional) releases is not just insulting to journalists and readers but also a waste of valuable resources for the company that employs them.

    If media organisations continue down that path, they'll continue to contribute to their own predicted redundancy and sadly, Australia will lose much talent we cannot afford to lose.

    The economic future of commercial media will remain intricately linked to honourable, quality investigative reporting that is clearly in the public's best interest, not in disguised commercial best interests.

  3. Rosemary Stanton

    Nutritionist & Visiting Fellow at UNSW Australia

    A major problem occurs because research in some areas (especially my own area of nutrition) is funded by companies whose main purpose is to sell their products. Some commission research; others are asked to fund research by scientists who do not have public funding. In my experience, when companies fund research of this nature, they do so to increase sales of their product. Research results may be given undeserved publicity via media releases.

    Full journal articles may disclose funding sources…

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  4. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    I'm not sure this is a phenomenon of health stories so much as a feature of journalism by press release - on any topic. The rapid cycle of event-twitter-internet seems to have distorted reporting on a wide range of areas - not the least of which is the political scene.

    I also see another issue here: the changing access to published research that the internet has brought. The original purpose of publishing research was to put the work out into an informed community, so that the methodology and…

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