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Research organisations: misleading press releases

Journalists writing for the consumer press should be wary of press releases from research organisations and researchers as they are often biased.

Too often, medical news aimed at the general public is mere headline-grabbing. Research organisations and researchers themselves are largely to blame for this.

A study analysed the quality of 200 press releases selected at random from those published by 20 university research centres in the USA. Of the 113 releases devoted to clinical trials, 40 % of these trials were based on a poor-quality methodology which produced unconvincing results. Less than half stated that the results should be treated with caution.

More than 25 % of the 200 press releases exaggerated the importance of the findings.

64 of the 87 releases covering tests on animals or carried out in the laboratory claimed that the results were relevant for human medicine. And yet, a study has shown that two thirds of trials on animals that have received extensive media coverage do not ultimately result in treatments for humans.

This study shows how poorly reliable are press releases from research organisations and researchers, who stand to gain financially and in prestige by exaggerating the importance of their work.

Prescrire urges journalists writing for the consumer press to resist sensationalist claims and to treat press releases from researchers, especially when they promise miracles, with caution.

©Prescrire 1 October 2010

"Medical research centres: deceptive press releases" Prescrire Int 2010 ; 19 (109) : 236. (Pdf, free)

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