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Exaggeration in medical news starts with the press release

Medical research is often exaggerated in the news. Medical journalists are not the only ones guilty of such sloppiness; results are also often exaggerated in academic press releases. This was the conclusion of a study by researchers from Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) and Leiden University, which has been published in the Dutch Journal of Medicine.

The researchers examined news stories about studies conducted at Dutch universities and academic hospitals. If a press release exaggerated the conclusion of a study, in 92 percent of cases, the news reports about this study contained the same exaggeration. If the press release was not exaggerated, only 6 per cent of the news reports were exaggerated. It also emerged that more news coverage was dedicated to studies with exaggerated press releases.

One in five press releases about health research and more than one in four news articles report greater cause-effect relationships than the researchers do themselves. ‘That can have negative consequences,’ says one of the authors, doctor of internal medicine Joop Schat. ‘The patients who visit our office bring that incorrect information along with them.’

Following a similar study that appeared several years ago in the British Medical Journal relating to publications in England, the study aimed to determine how often Dutch press and news reports contain exaggerations and to investigate where these exaggerations arise in the trajectory between scientific publications and newspapers.

From association to causal relationship

One example of how things can go awry is a study of the relationship between creative professions and Parkinson's disease. According to the scientific article on this research, men who still have a creative profession at a later age have a lower chance of developing Parkinson's. In the media, this was presented as ‘a creative profession can protect against Parkinson’s.’ That statement makes a causal connection with the association that the original article implied.  

For their study on ‘Exaggerated health news’, the researchers compared scientific articles, the press releases about them and the news articles associated with the scientific articles. They noted, among other things, how often the original conclusion of the scientific article deviated from the conclusion in the press release and the news reports.

Crucial link between science and news

The researchers analysed 129 press releases from Dutch universities and university medical centres and all 185 associated news items from 2015. Of the press releases, 20 per cent exaggerated the conclusion or causal claim, while 29 percent of the news reports did so. The probability of an exaggerated news item was 16 times higher than in the case of non-exaggerated press releases. According to the researchers, this indicates a strong association between exaggeration in the press release and news items.

To overcome exaggeration, the researchers emphasise how academic press officers themselves can make a key contribution to the quality of health news by monitoring the accuracy and correctness of their press releases. In turn, the authors believe that journalists must deal critically with academic press releases.

The study was a collaborative effort between Science Communication and Society, Journalism and New Media and Public Health and Primary Medicine at Leiden University/LUMC. The researchers did not receive any external financial support for this research.