Sunday, 23 September 2012

Spinning the results of medical trials

On 11 September, a study was published on 'Misrepresentation of Randomized Controlled Trials in Press Releases and News Coverage'.

The aim of the research was to:
  • evaluate the presence of “spin” in press releases and associated media coverage; and 
  • evaluate whether findings of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) based on press releases and media coverage are misinterpreted.
The researchers identified:
  • 41% of abstracts contained spin.
  • 46% of press releases contained spin.
  • 51% of news items contained spin.
(The researchers defined 'spin' as: 'reporting that emphasizes the beneficial effects of the experimental (new) treatment.')

NHS Behind the Headlines explains:

First, at the abstract (summary) level. Leaving aside any deliberate spinning, many researchers may just unconsciously “sex-up” their report abstracts to present them in the best possible light...

Second, at the press release level. Press officers for universities, research institutes or medical journals are under pressure to generate media coverage. And a lively, positive “breakthrough” will get more coverage than results that are dull and inconclusive.

Third, at the journalism level. Many journalists claim (with some justification) that they are over-worked and under-resourced so they simply read the press release (and some might read the abstract) before writing the story. The full study on which the press release is based is rarely read.

The result: articles about cake curing dementia, Page 3 making you brainy, and the cancer risk of turning the light on when you go to the toilet at night

NHS Choices has a 'How to read health news' guide, which suggests some key things to look for in such reporting. For example - was the research done on humans or mice? How many people were involved? Did the study assess what is mentioned in the headline?

(Hat-tip to Mike)

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