Blog | Thursday, May 21, 2009

Press release puffery

Time points out that press release on a recent biological discovery created a media flurry that outpaced the actual event. And outpacing this discovery is tough, since it involved a 47-million-year-old fossil that provides a missing link in primate evolution.

Time chided the press releases, calling them a "master class in ballyhoo." Internists had recently chimed in with the same challenge to academic medical centers, whose press releases influence how the mainstream press reports medical research.

In Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers reviewed press releases from 20 academic medical centers, whose press departments had issued an average of a nearly a release each week.

Among press releases analyzed in detail, 87 (44%) promoted animal or laboratory research. Of the 87, 64 (74%) explicitly claimed relevance to human health, even though two-thirds of animal studies fail to translate into successful human treatments. Furthermore, releases omitted study size, failed to quantify results, reported on uncontrolled interventions or samples less than 30 participants, used surrogate primary outcomes or unpublished data, or lacked relevant cautions that tempered the findings. Few promoted randomized trials or meta-analyses.

Annals researchers suggested academic medical centers issue fewer releases about preliminary research, especially unpublished scientific meeting presentations, to avoid the confusion being passed along to the mainstream media. We took note of this at ACP Internist, and are asking our readers to tell us what they think. Tell us in our current poll, "Your Thoughts Exactly: Media reporting of medical research."