Meet the (Research) Press Release Police

Police Tape

Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/LKvwe

If you follow science communication, you’ve seen countless stories discussing the issue of hype in science reporting.

Some of the articles and blog posts blame journalists for sensationalizing stories, while others point a finger squarely at university communications offices. One thing’s for sure, there’s enough blame to go around and everyone deserves some of it.

In the past, I’ve taken issue with some of the criticism leveled at university communicators. But I recognize that we aren’t immune to mistakes, and when communicating about health-related research – mistakes can be costly.

Enter Healthnewsreview.org.

It conducts independent expert reviews of ‘health care journalism, advertising, marketing, public relations and other messages that may influence consumers and provides criteria that consumers can use to evaluate these messages themselves.’

It just launched a brand new website, and with it – a new role: policing press releases.

Gary Schwitzer, the publisher of Healthnewsreview.org, told me that in addition to its long track record of reviewing health news stories, his team now rates press releases from universities, government agencies, medical journals, drug makers, device manufacturers and others. He says the health news ‘food chain’ can be contaminated in many different ways – including bad press releases.

“Almost always, our reviewers will compare the published paper with the news release. But we’ve seen already how spin in the study is followed by spin in the news release, which is followed by spin in the news story.  And the poor news consumer at the end of the contaminated food chain is totally unaware that they’ve been spun.  We will also try to track whether the critiqued-news release ended up apparently influencing any news coverage. So there are many comparisons we can do that will make this particularly intriguing.”

He says his ultimate goal is for health-related reporting to improve so much that he puts himself out of business.

Misleading to the Point of Deception

Healthnewsreview.org has already made some headlines with its first press release review. The release was issued by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, School of Medicine and Public Health, and titled: Prostate Cancer Drug Slows Memory Loss in Women with Alzheimer’s Disease. A multi-disciplinary team of expert reviewers wrote that the release was:

“Misleading to the point of deception, this news release ignores all primary and secondary analyses of the study it ostensibly reports on — which were uniformly negative and showed no benefit — and instead treats a positive subgroup analysis as if it were the main finding of the study. It also failed to mention the potential for serious harm from the drug, and wasn’t transparent about the financial interests that might bias the opinions of one of the study authors. This is just not an acceptable practice.

Yet it appears that journalists and other web producers bit on the bait and followed the lead of the news release unquestioningly.  That’s where avoidable harm occurs.”

I encourage you to read the full review. It’s impressive.

This is a Good Thing

This is nothing to be afraid of, as long as you’re being smart and responsible. I hope the prospect of receiving a bad review is enough to encourage people to pause and think about the information they’re planning to share with the public – before they click send.

I think Earle Holland, retired AVP for Research Communication at Ohio State University, said it best:

“As to my feelings about adding critiques of releases to the mix, I’m all for it,” he said. “To my mind, it’s hard to find objections for constructive criticism of releases when the need is for a better informed public…Especially with health and medicine, every release will either bring dread or hope to some patients and their families.  We need to insure that they get the best info available and in the right context.  And if that ruffles a few feathers and makes the job a bit harder, then so be it.”

I look forward to your comments.


Resources:

University Communication and the Blame Game

Health News Review Website

The Original UW Press Release

The Full UW Press Release Review 

 

2 thoughts on “Meet the (Research) Press Release Police

  1. Simple step for us to see if this is for real. Everybody agrees that reporting only relative risk is misleading very often (probably more often than not). Relative risk, if reported at all, should be accompanied by absolute risk, number-needed-to-treat, or similar. If the “police” can bring that about it will be believable. Else, we will need police for the police.

    Like

  2. Pingback: This Week’s Good Reads: Gender Bias Study Follow-Up, Pesticide Debate, and the End of Wolves on Isle Royale | The UnderStory

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