Health journalists focus on initial studies that are often refuted, a new study finds

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Will people read about null research findings? And are such findings news? These are critical questions facing health reporters, because news coverage often influences how people make their health-care decisions.

The problem is that positive research findings make more alluring stories, particularly if the new study suggests a potential cure for a horrible disease. But many of these initially positive findings are refuted by larger, more rigorous follow-up studies that journalists rarely cover. This biased news coverage can mislead the public with important consequences — such as helping to perpetuate the discredited link between autism and vaccines.

Health News Review recently tackled this topic, using the example of statins. Initial observational studies showed that statins may help boost survival from cancer. But later, more rigorous trials showed that statins don’t improve cancer outcomes. Nonetheless, the media heavily covered the initial findings, but barely picked up on the more reliable negative findings.

Researchers at the University of Bordeaux, France investigated the extent of this problem by analyzing the news coverage of 156 primary medical studies, as outlined in a paper recently published in PLOS One. They focused on studies that looked for associations between risk factors and diseases in six areas: psychiatry, neurology, breast cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, glaucoma and psoriasis.

The study found that “journalists preferentially cover initial findings although they are often contradicted by meta-analyses and rarely inform the public when they are disconfirmed.”

Using a database of thousands of stories published in the general press, the research team discovered all 53 initial research studies that generated news coverage reported positive findings — even though two thirds of these initial findings were refuted by subsequent research. In contrast, journalists covered none of the 174 initial studies reporting a null effect and rarely covered null findings in subsequent studies.

They also found that journalists more often covered lifestyle research, which investigates factors like diet and smoking. Lifestyle associations received larger newspaper coverage, even if the initial studies were published in less prestigious scientific journals. The authors stated, “This preferential coverage further supports the view that the first journalists’ aim is to attract readers’ attention.”

Finally, the researchers offered some advice on how to remedy this problem. They suggested that “journalists should always ask scientists whether it is an initial finding and, if so, they should inform the public that this discovery is still tentative and must be validated by subsequent studies.” They also recognized that it can be difficult for journalists to find objective sources to put a new study into the appropriate context, so they called on scientists to assist journalists. The authors concluded by saying that scientists have a moral duty to make sure press releases covering their work are accurate.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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