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.