Press releases by academic medical centers: not so academic?

Steven Woloshin, Lisa M Schwartz, Samuel L Casella, Abigail T Kennedy, Robin J Larson
Annals of Internal Medicine 2009 May 5, 150 (9): 613-8

BACKGROUND: The news media are often criticized for exaggerated coverage of weak science. Press releases, a source of information for many journalists, might be a source of those exaggerations.

OBJECTIVE: To characterize research press releases from academic medical centers.

DESIGN: Content analysis.

SETTING: Press releases from 10 medical centers at each extreme of U.S. News & World Report's rankings for medical research.

MEASUREMENTS: Press release quality.

RESULTS: Academic medical centers issued a mean of 49 press releases annually. Among 200 randomly selected releases analyzed in detail, 87 (44%) promoted animal or laboratory research, of which 64 (74%) explicitly claimed relevance to human health. Among 95 releases about primary human research, 22 (23%) omitted study size and 32 (34%) failed to quantify results. Among all 113 releases about human research, few (17%) promoted studies with the strongest designs (randomized trials or meta-analyses). Forty percent reported on the most limited human studies--those with uncontrolled interventions, small samples (<30 participants), surrogate primary outcomes, or unpublished data--yet 58% lacked the relevant cautions.

LIMITATION: The effects of press release quality on media coverage were not directly assessed.

CONCLUSION: Press releases from academic medical centers often promote research that has uncertain relevance to human health and do not provide key facts or acknowledge important limitations.

PRIMARY FUNDING SOURCE: National Cancer Institute.

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