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Whence the hype?

The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study.

Study under review: The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study

Introduction

When it comes to health news, even though we know not to “believe the hype”, hype still happens and it has an impact. Not only is the public’s use of health care services influenced by the media[1], but even professionals aren’t immune. Press coverage of medical research findings is associated with those findings being cited more by other scientists[2].

Even doctors in the ER test more for certain infections that have been getting heavy press coverage[3]. Since the press is so influential, it’s important that the media reports medical findings accurately. But it doesn’t seem like that’s happening: past research has shown media coverage of medical[4] and nutritional[5] research is often distorted.

But all of this doesn’t imply that the blame lies with the science journalists. They are often under immense pressure to write more, fast, which encourages reliance on press releases and summaries from news agencies, universities, and other public relations outlets. This is why it’s quite possible that journalists are reporting the information they are receiving (fairly) accurately, and instead it is the information sources they rely upon which lead to media hype.

Indeed, a previous study[6] of press releases from medical centers found that many provided exaggerated claims, while few provided caveats and precautions about their claims. Similar results were found in cancer genetics research, where press releases often exaggerated causal claims which were then repeated by the media. But the origin of the hype may go back even further than press releases. One study[7] found that exaggerated claims often could be traced back to the abstract of the original journal article.

The purpose of the study under review was to expand upon the research above and trace the source of the hype in health science news.

Hype is ubiquitous in health news reporting. But this hype may come from places other than journalists exaggerating findings. Health news impacts not only the general public, but also physicians and other researchers.

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Other Articles in Issue #03 (January 2015)