December 10, 2014 12:22 pm
Updated: December 10, 2014 1:13 pm

Is health reporting sensationalized? Scientists study where overhyping starts

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PARIS – The latest health article you’re reading is warning you about the dangers of too much red meat, coffee or aspartame. How much of this warning do you take to heart?

In a new study, British researchers say that there’s exaggeration in health news, but it isn’t necessarily the fault of journalists for overhyping. Turns out, press releases put together with the help of the scientists could be the culprit.

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As the ivory towers compete for funding and global attention, they’re sensationalizing to garner headlines, Cardiff University scientists explain.

“If you ask the scientists who’s to blame when things go wrong, 100 per cent of them say journalists,” Dr. Petroc Sumner told Time magazine.

“But at least 30 per cent of them admitted that their own press releases had exaggeration, even when they’d been heavily involved in writing them themselves.”

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The researchers were inspired after their study on brain chemicals and impulsivity got swept up in a “media circus” three years ago. There was a time hook – riots were occurring across England.

“Brain chemical lack spurs rioting,” and “Nose spray to stop drunks and brawls,” the headlines read.

The trouble is, their research had no mention of riots. Or nasal spray.

“Unfortunately, we made the novice mistake of issuing the press release about our research during the riots,” the researchers wrote in The Guardian.

They questioned how often this misreporting was occurring and what caused this game of broken telephone.

During 2011, the team collected press releases about health-related findings from 20 major universities in the United Kingdom along with their peer-reviewed journals and the published news stories about the research.

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They zeroed in on three types of exaggeration: doling out concrete recommendations to change their behaviour based on preliminary findings, drawing causal claims based on correlational data, and applying animal data to humans.

“For example, if the journal article reported a correlation between eating biscuits and cancer risk, and the news story claimed that biscuits cause cancer, what did the press release say? Similarly, if a news story claimed a new treatment for humans but the actual study was on mice, what did the press release say?” the researchers asked.

They called their results “alarming.”

About 460 press releases were collected along with 668 news articles. Forty per cent of the time, press releases had exaggerated advice, 33 per cent had exaggerated causal claims and 36 per cent turned animal research to human conclusions.

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And whenever press releases overhyped, the news would, too. If press releases stuck to the study’s content, journalists rarely jumped the gun in exaggerating.

What’s more, exaggeration in press releases didn’t necessarily result in more coverage, “challenging the received wisdom that hype generates impact,” they wrote.

“Many people rush to blame journalists, just as we did. But our research suggests that behind many misleading news reports is a misleading press release, normally part-written, or at least approved, by the scientists themselves. This makes academics responsible for their own press releases, and they must be held accountable,” the researchers said.

They said that the onus is on journalists to sift through what’s fact and what’s fiction but they concede that the profession is time-strapped and can’t investigate every claim.

“Competition between universities and the drive toward self-promotion have combined with economic pressures on journalism to create an unhealthy ecosystem,” the researchers conclude.

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Global News has its set of journalistic principles and practices when it comes to health reporting. Under the guidelines, reporters are urged to focus on objective factual reporting that includes expert comment.

“Be cautious about reporting unproven health benefits of new drugs, health products or foods with so-called ‘preventive’ characteristics,” the guidelines read.

“Use caution when broadcasting or publishing study results which have been announced to the public before being published in recognized, peer-reviewed journals. Clearly indicate the size and scope of a study and whether research is preliminary or advanced.”

Sumner’s team is hopeful that university press offices will focus on press releases that are accurate, instead of eye-catching. They should aim for striking a balance, Sumner said.

The implications are huge: the public receives its health and science information through the media. After reading stories, these people could be asking their doctors to stop taking a certain medication, for example.

“That’s an awful lot of people, many, many millions of people, making lifestyle decisions based on information about health or health-related science that they’ve read in papers or heard on the news…much more so than based on actual government-driven or medically-driven public health campaigns,” Sumner told Time.

The team’s full findings were published Tuesday night in the BMJ. Read the full findings here.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

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