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The Almighty News Release: How They Influence Health Journalism

A new post on the Embargo Watch blog, “The power of the press release: A tale of two fish oil-chemotherapy studies,” addresses an issue that had me running around in circles for hours last week.

cancer.jpg Some news organizations were reporting on a paper in the journal Cancer, reporting that it had been published in that day’s online edition.

But it hadn’t been – not when the stories were published.

Instead, all I could find was a study by the same authors on the same topic that had been published in the same journal two weeks prior.

What apparently happened, as Embargo Watch surmises as well, is that many journalists simply covered what was in the journal’s news release – not what had already been published two weeks prior – which was a more impressive article. And they rushed to publish before the new study had even been posted online – all over a very short-term study in a small number of people.

Blogger Ivan Oransky of Embargo Watch nails the issue with this conclusion:

“I find it puzzling that all the outlets aimed at consumers chose to cover a shorter — and even somewhat smaller — study in a journal that had just published a longer — and therefore stronger — one. I can’t prove that it comes down to the fact that one was press-released and the other wasn’t, but I’m not seeing any evidence to the contrary.

I also can’t explain why Cancer chose to press-release the weaker of the two studies, although it was probably just choosing what was important in a given week, rather than anything planned. The February 28 study probably just stood out more that week than the February 15 one had. Of course, if it were me, I would have somehow mentioned the February 15 study in the release for the February 28th one, but I don’t write press releases.

What this does suggest is that press releases are more powerful than some of us would like to admit — and that many news outlets rely too heavily on them to determine what they should be covering. I often criticize journals and societies for their attempts to use embargoes to control the flow of information. Here, however, the balance of the blame seems to be with reporters.

Sorry, colleagues, but I call them like I see them.”

Faulty health care news is rarely the fault of just a single entity. As this case demonstrates, there’s some blame that should be shared by both the medical journal and the journalists who were spoonfed by the journal news release.

*This blog post was originally published at Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview Blog*

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