2016 was our first year full year evaluating PR news releases that make claims about health care interventions.
Ours is the only project that systematically evaluates these documents, which are designed to bring attention to something that the issuing organization thinks is newsworthy — often a new study about a test or treatment.
Some — not all — of these news releases try to portray the test or treatment in the best possible light, because PR officials think it will attract news coverage that reflects well on their institution.
We think it’s important to review health care news releases because they frequently set the tone for subsequent coverage by journalists. If the news release includes exaggerations, there’s a good chance those exaggerations will make their way into news stories about the research. The same is true of cautions and caveats.
In 2016 (as has been the case in previous years) we saw way too much of what’s wrong with health care news in these documents — overstatement of benefits, downplaying or omission of harms, and superficial discussion of the evidence. And we saw far too few news releases that did a thorough job telling readers about limitations, costs, and alternatives.
Report card: Vast majority flunk key criteria for quality
That lack of depth and scrutiny is reflected in our annual report card for news releases. Out of the 190 releases that we reviewed this year, we had about twice as many bottom dwellers — releases scoring 1 and 2 stars (39%) — as we did top performers — releases scoring 4 or 5 stars (20%).
Forty-one percent scored 3 stars, which you might think is a reasonably decent showing. But consider that many of these releases will have flunked the most important criteria relating to benefits, harms, and evidence quality.
The table below tells the story: Only a quarter to a third of the releases we reviewed scored a satisfactory grade on these three key elements of our reviews.
Percent Rated Satisfactory
Did the release explain how often benefits occur?
Did the release explain how often harms occur?
Did the release explain the quality of the evidence?
A lot of what we see out there is, quite frankly, crap — and it’s not always coming from the podunk outfits that you might expect not to know any better. Many of these third-rate releases are coming from top-shelf universities, brand name medical centers, peer-reviewed journals, and respected government agencies. The backing of these institutions gives the messages added heft in the minds of journalists and the public.
These organizations simply have to do better if we’re going to make headway improving the public dialogue about healthcare.
Sample of the biggest news release flaws this year
In early January, our review of a problematic University of Maryland news release sparked what would eventually come to be known as “Chocolatemilkgate” — easily our most popular PR-related story of the year. And it’s a story that continues to generate headlines nearly 12 months after we first broke it. It’s also a great example of why we review news releases: If our initial review hadn’t called attention to researchers’ improbable claims and lack of supporting data on the benefits of chocolate milk for healing concussions, it’s doubtful that other news outlets would have picked up the scent of the story and put pressure on the university to investigate. In the end that mounting pressure is what led to a formal inquiry, which shined a light on inadequate conflict of interest policies and a dysfunctional news release process — among other issues that the university says will be addressed by new reforms.
There were many, many other news releases that contained sensational, misleading, or incomplete information that had the potential to influence news coverage and which, in many cases, clearly did influence that coverage for the worse.
For example, an alarmist Northwestern University news release about “skyrocketing” prostate cancer. Though it flunked basic math, the release generated lots of fear-mongering coverage from major news organizations — most of whom gave far too much air time to an admitted “true believer” in prostate cancer screening.
Yale University sparked false hope with a claim that researchers had “discovered the cause of myeloma,” when in fact they had only found an association between certain compounds and a type of myeloma that occurs in only a tiny number of patients. We stayed on top of the story, noting that subsequent research in more patients suggested the association didn’t hold up.
After reviewing a number of FDA releases, we found that the agency — which should be setting the standard for accurate, balanced information about the drugs it approves — is too often content to pass along “vague statements that may come across as endorsing new products without providing the context that readers need to make decisions.”
A research institute claimed a “breakthrough” in the treatment of deadly brain tumors but never mentioned that the drug it was touting hadn’t even been tested in humans yet. We explored how that misleading message affected one patient with brain cancer in a related podcast.
A Society for Maternal Fetal Medicine release touted “The benefits of chocolate during pregnancy” based on a study that found no such benefits. That example found its way into John Oliver’s HBO special on scientific studies.
Johns Hopkins University claimed in a headline that medical errors are “now the third leading cause of death in the U.S.,” but it didn’t acknowledge that the seemingly huge death totals (~250,000) were extrapolated from studies involving a measly 35 fatalities in all.
The news about news releases isn’t all bad. Johns Hopkins, whom we criticized above, also did some exemplary 5-star work about a study on psilocybin for treating depression. Other organizations earning 5-stars this year were the National Institutes of Health, the Lancet, Washington University in St. Louis, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
But let’s face it: these were rare beacons of excellence in an ocean of mediocrity.
There are some encouraging signs that PR professionals are taking our critiques to heart and will endeavor to do better — as suggested by these unsolicited comments that we received in response to our reviews (a small sampling of the total that we received):
“As the author of this press release, and a firm believer in HealthNewsReview.org’s mission, I appreciate the chance to be reviewed, and the comments above. I connected with the lead researcher and we’ve added a bit more to the release that we hope will address some of the issues identified by reviewers.”
“I thought all the comments were valid and useful and appreciated the feedback. I’ve shared it with our new media relations adviser and asked her to keep these points in mind as she writes the next release for this group of researchers.”
“Thank you for sharing this post. I am disappointed with the rating – we are very conscious of also supporting high quality scientific reporting and it is something we actively check when we work with authors etc. It’s really useful for me to see the feedback and comments from external parties and we will use your 10 points to check our releases against in future.”
“Thanks very much for your note. I appreciate the review. The feedback is welcome and certainly helpful for me as I continue to write releases. Please extend my thanks to the rest of the reviewers.”
Our release reviews are a great resource for journalists
While preliminary signs are encouraging, it will undoubtedly be a long slog to change the culture around news releases.
We’ll be taking the next step on that journey in 2017 by experimenting, in a limited way, with offering pre-publication assistance to PR officials and journalists as they prepare their news releases and stories. More to come on that in the new year.
In the mean time, I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in our first full year of reviewing news releases. And I encourage journalists — not just PR officials — to view these reviews as a professional resource for better reporting.
Almost every day we’re posting reviews that show how some news releases, and the news stories that rely on them, can be incredibly misleading and, in many cases, simply wrong.
Any one of these could form the foundation of an enterprise piece that’s more deeply and accurately reported.
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