We complain about it all the time. Journalists take a small study with some preliminary findings and write it up as the story of a century. The sensationalising of science news is certainly a problem in the media, but a new study suggests perhaps we are too quick to blame the journos.
A paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine examines the content of 200 randomly selected press releases from 20 academic medical centres in the US. The analysis by lead authors Drs Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz shows that press officers are just as bad when it comes to exaggeration.
The press releases split in to 113 that focused on human research with the remaining 87 covering animal or laboratory research. On the human side, 40% reported on studies limited by factors like small sample sizes. Of the same group, 42% failed to provide caveats explaining the limits of the research.
Things get worse for the animal and laboratory studies press releases. Despite the majority claiming the relevance of the research to human health, 90% failed to mention potential difficulties in extrapolating the results to people.
In total, 29% of releases were rated by the authors as exaggerating the importance of research. Animal research was more likely to be exaggerated than human. It’s not just the press officers grandstanding however. Most press releases contain quotes from the scientists involved, and 26% of these were found to overstate research importance.
The authors admit that their findings would be stronger if backed up by an analysis of the press coverage resulting from these releases, but say the study is still important because press releases are known to be influential. A previous study suggests that as many as one third of news stories rely mostly or completely on a press release.
S. Woloshin, L. M. Schwartz, S. L. Casella, A. T. Kennedy, & R. J. Larson (2009). Press Releases by Academic Medical Centers: Not So Academic? Annals of Internal Medicine, 613-618