Science and health reporting has copped a lot of flak over the years. The report of the “scientific breakthrough” has become frustrating and annoying (and perhaps an ethical issue), especially to people who are sick and desperate for a cure.
Certainly, if you believed everything you read in the newspaper in the 1990s, breast cancer should have been cured in 1998 and the sequencing of the human genome should have “transformed medicine”.
There are three main players in this particular media game:
- PR departments of research institutions
A study just published by Yavchitz and colleagues in PLOS Medicine looked at the interactions of all three players. The results suggest that scientists should look carefully at their own writing of scientific papers, as this can have a role in disseminating “spin”. I think this finding would surprise many scientists.
The study examined a cohort of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that are considered the “gold standard” for testing the effectiveness of therapies. The authors examined “spin” in the conclusions of the scientific abstracts (the summary of the study) of the original published paper and in the corresponding press release and news story.
The authors defined spin as “specific reporting (intentional or unintentional) that emphasises the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment”.
To me, the results were startling.
The authors began with 498 press releases but only 41 of those also provided a matching scientific paper AND a news release. Of the 41 scientific papers, 17 (41%) of the abstract conclusions contained spin and 24 (59%) did not. (Figure 2 [below] of the paper shows the results). Of the 17 that contained spin, 16 out of 17 of the resulting press releases (94%) and 17 out of 17 (100%) news stories also contained spin.
On the other hand, of the 24 scientific abstracts that did not contain spin, only 3 (13%) of the press releases contained spin and 4 (17%) of the news stories.
The authors pointed out that their own study had limitations, including only examining 41 studies (that had both a press release and news story associated with them) chosen from one media outlet over a four-month period. The method used also did not show whether the type of spin in the scientific abstract was the same as that reported in the press release and news story.
The study in PLOS Medicine found that the source of funding (for-profit versus public) did not affect the level of “spin”. This is an interesting finding given the public’s confusion over the funding of science as mentioned in the Science MoJo article, “Is trust in scientists based on a misunderstanding?”.
The study found that specialist journals are more likely to publish scientific articles containing “spin”. Given their results, the authors point out that reviewers and editors of peer-reviewed journals have an important role to play in accurately communicating science and medical findings to the public when they assess submitted articles.
While journalists tend to cop the blame for inaccurate reporting of results, this study suggests that the overstating of benefits in the news media is related to “spin” in scientific abstracts.
It seems a no-brainer that scientists should be careful that they are not overstating their results. The authors label the overstating of benefits by scientists as “intentional or unintentional”. Certainly in that past, I believe that the pressure to condense a technical subject into a pithy “elevator pitch” might have caused some scientists to unintentionally overstate benefits. The idea that the “spin” is intentional is disturbing given that accuracy in reporting should be an essential skill of scientists.
Scientists should be trained to understand how the news media operates and ensure accuracy in their own writing. This will help to minimise downstream “spin” as PR departments grasp at exciting findings to improve funding opportunities for their institutions and journalists look for an interesting angle to inform their readers.
Yavchitz A, Boutron I, Bafeta A, Marroun I, Charles P, et al. (2012) Misrepresentation of Randomized Controlled Trials in Press Releases and News Coverage: A Cohort Study. PLoS Med 9(9): e1001308. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001308