Academic Press Releases Influence Exaggerated Health Claims More Than Mainstream Media

Fish hooks
Academic press releases got you hooked? An observational study shows they're behind more of the exaggerated health claims than mainstream media. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Academic press releases largely take health and science news and make it more palatable for the general public. And as it turns out, they’re not above exaggerating research claims for more clicks. Yep, we’re talking about clickbait. Jon Stewart might have described it best to New York magazine when he said, “It’s like carnival barkers, and they all sit out there and go, ‘Come on in here and see a three-legged man!’ So you walk in and it’s a guy with a crutch.”

Up until now, a majority of the exaggerated health-related claims have been blamed on mainstream media. But researchers from Cardiff University in the UK weren’t so sure it was the media so much as it was the academic press releases. So they set out to identify a true source.

First, what does it mean for claims to be exaggerated? Researchers narrowed down three common types: “giving direct advice to readers to change their behavior, making causal claims from correlational (observational) data, and making inference about humans from animal findings.” Then, they analyzed 462 press releases on health and biomedical-related science issued by universities in the UK in 2011, alongside their associated peer reviewed research papers and 668 national news stories.

And in comparison to peer-reviewed journals, researchers found 40 percent of press releases contained exaggerated advice, 33 percent exaggerated casual claims, and 36 percent exaggerated inference to humans from animal research. What’s more is an exaggerated press release, any type, led to exaggerated news coverage 58, 81, and 86 percent of the time, respectively. This was significantly less (up to 18 percent) when press releases properly reported the study’s findings.

"Our principle findings were that most of the inflation detected in our study did not occur [from the beginning] in the media but was already present in the text of the press releases produced by academics and their establishments," researchers wrote.

However, they added their study is only observational, which means they can’t draw any definitive conclusions. Ben Goldacre, a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene & Topical Medicine, did add in an accompanying editorial that “considerable quantitative research has already been done on misrepresentation of medical research in mainstream media.”

“Evidence suggests that media coverage can have an effect on the uptake of treatments and services; and even on subsequent academic citations,” Goldacre wrote. “It might be useful to build on the features of academic journals that improve standards and earn trust in science: accountability, transparency, and feedback.”

Source: Sumner P, et al. The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study. BMJ. 2014.

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