Why so many of the health articles you read are junk

Health journalism is often full of exaggerated, conflicting, or outright misleading claims. If you ever want to see a perfect example of this, check out “Kill or Cure,” a site where Paul Battley meticulously documents all the times the Daily Mail reported various items — from antacids to yogurt — either cause cancer, prevent cancer, or sometimes do both.

And it’s not just this one newspaper. You’ve no doubt stumbled upon the many, many over-hyped media reports — online, on TV — that suggest that coffee prevents Alzheimer’s disease, that a new drug might end MS, or that red wine is the elixir for a long life. Not surprisingly, many of these claims have turned out to be misleading or wrong.

So who’s to blame for all these bad stories and the sorry state of health journalism? One new study, published in the British Medical Journal, assigns a large fraction of blame to the press shops at various research universities. The study found that releases from these offices often overhype the findings of their scientists — while journalists play along uncritically, parroting whatever showed up in their inbox that day. Hype, they suggest, was manufactured in the ivory tower, not the newsroom.

Overhyped health stories are a huge problem

Misleading health news stories are surprisingly widespread. One survey by Gary Schwitzer, who runs the watchdog website HealthNewsReview, looked at 500 health stories published in large newspapers over two years. Many of the stories were awfully flawed, he found, overplaying the benefits and underplaying the harms of various treatments, exaggerating the prevalence of diseases, and leaving out discussion of alternative options.

And these stories are a real health hazard. Lots of people make decisions every day based on the things they read in the media. A number of studies have documented the ways media coverage influences people’s health choices, from whether to get screened for breast cancer or go in for a colonoscopy.

Ask any physician about the number of patients who have come into their offices, requesting some test or treatment based on something they saw in the media. I’ve heard from many of them. I’ve also heard from health ministers who say they rely solely on journalism to inform themselves about the latest science. I don’t need to tell you again about the alarming hold a certain TV doctor has on his audience — no matter how dubious his advice.

So who’s to blame for overhyped health journalism?

In this latest British Medical Journal study, the authors looked at 462 press releases about human health studies that came from 20 leading UK research universities in 2011. They then compared these press releases both to the actual studies and the resulting news coverage.

What they wanted to find out was how overblown claims got made. Take, for example, the notion that coffee can prevent cancer. Did that come from the study itself, the press release, or was it a figment of the journalist’s imagination?

The researchers found that university press offices were a major source of overhype: over one-third of press releases contained either exaggerated claims of causation (when the study itself only suggested correlation), unwarranted implications about animal studies for people, or unfounded health advice.

These exaggerated claims then seeped into news coverage. When a press release included actual health advice, 58 percent of the related news articles would do so too (even if the actual study did no such thing). When a press release confused correlation with causation, 81 percent of related news articles would. And when press releases made unwarranted inferences about animal studies, 86 percent of the journalistic coverage did, too.

On the flip side, when press releases were free from exaggeration, the press was much less likely to exaggerate in those those three areas (the rate of overhype declined to 17 percent, 18 percent, and 10 percent, respectively).

The scientists were usually present during the spinning process, the researchers wrote: “Most press releases issued by universities are drafted in dialogue between scientists and press officers and are not released without the approval of scientists and thus most of the responsibility for exaggeration must lie with the scientific authors.”

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