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Promoting Healthy Skepticism In The News: Helping Journalists Get It Right

November 22, 2009

An editorial published online November 20 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute discusses the exaggerated fears and hopes that often appear in news coverage of cancer research. The editorial provides guidance for both the media and journals to help alleviate the problem.

Lisa M. Schwartz, M.D., M.S., and Steven Woloshin, M.D., M.S., of Center for Medicine and the Media at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice in New Hampshire, and Barnett S. Kramer, M.D., editor-in-chief of the JNCI, use recent media coverage of two studies from the New England Journal of Medicine and the JNCI to demonstrate their point.

Coverage of trial results of the new anti-cancer drug olaparib, which appeared in the NEJM, exaggerated hope in many ways. One national news outlet claimed the drug “was the most important cancer breakthrough of the decade,” but failed to note that the study was uncontrolled (so there is no way to know if the drug accounted for the findings), and very preliminary (it is not known if the findings will ever translate into longer life).

The editorialists also point to coverage of a JNCI article on alcohol consumption and cancer risk among women, which may have caused unwarranted fear: “A drink a day raises women’s risk of cancer,” read one newspaper headline. Unfortunately, the coverage did not provide the magnitude of the risk. Comparing the highest level of drinking (â“°¥15 drinks a week) to the lowest (one to two drinks per week), the investigators observed a 0.6% absolute increase in the risk of breast cancer diagnosis: from 2% to 2.6% for more than 7 years.

Journalists are not the only ones to blame, though, according to the editorialists. Medical journals sometimes leave important elements out of studies. In many cases, absolute risks and study limitations are omitted from the abstracts and journal press releases.

To help journalists and medical journals, the editorialists include tip sheets with guidance on questions to ask study authors, the interpretation of common statistics, and ways to highlight study limitations.

The tip sheets are posted on a new JNCI Web site for science writers: http://www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/jnci/resource/reporting_on_cancer.html

“We hope that efforts””within medical journals and those directed toward journalists””will help foster healthy skepticism in the news,” the authors write. “Namely, setting a higher bar for covering very preliminary or inherently weak research, routinely providing data to support claims, and always highlighting study limitations.”

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