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Media+Medical research= Bad combo!

News stories about medical research often omit basic facts about the report, says a study.

india Updated: Jun 09, 2006 21:03 IST

Researchers writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, have warned that news stories about medical research often omit basic facts about the study and fail to highlight important limitations. Such omissions, they say, can mislead the public and distort the actual significance of the research.

Dr Lisa Schwartz and Dr Steven Woloshin, both Associate Professors of Medicine at Dartmouth Medical School and at the VA Outcomes Group, studied media coverage of research presented at scientific meetings.

"Scientific meetings are an important forum for researchers to exchange ideas and present work in progress. But much of the work presented is not ready for public consumption," said Schwartz.

"The studies have undergone limited review and findings may change substantially by the time the final report is published in a medical journal. Some meeting presentations are never published at all," she added.

"Unless journalists are careful to provide basic study facts and highlight limitations the public may be misled about the meaning, importance and validity of the research", said Woloshin.

The team analysed newspaper, TV and radio stories that appeared in the US for research reports from five major scientific meetings in 2002 and 2003 to see if basic study facts (eg., size, design) were reported; whether cautions about inherent study weaknesses were noted; and if the news stories were clear about the preliminary stage of the research.

he researchers discovered that the basic study facts were often missing, like, a third of reports failed to mention study size; 40 per cent did not quantify the main result at all.                                                                             

Schwartz and Woloshin urged reporters and editors to make sure their stories include three things:

1) Basic study facts: what kind of study was done, how many subjects were included, what was the main result;

(2) Cautions about study designs with intrinsic limitations; and

(3) Clear statements about the preliminary stage of the work under discussion.

Important study limitations were often missing. For example, only 6 per cent  (1/17) of the news stories about animal studies noted that results might not apply to humans. And only 2 of 175 stories about unpublished studies noted that the study was unpublished.

The researchers claim that another reason for misinterpreted or "over-hyped" research is its early release at professional meetings that reporters are encouraged to attend.

"Researchers benefit from the attention because it is a mark of academic success, their academic affiliates benefit because good publicity attracts patients and donors, and research funders – public and private – benefit when they can show a good return on their investments."                                    

"The meeting organisers benefit too; extensive media coverage attracts more advertisers, and higher profile scientists for the following year, guaranteeing more dramatic reports and ultimately more press," they wrote.

They note, "the public has a strong appetite for medical news and scientific meetings provide the media with an easy source of provocative material."