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Influence of medical journal press releases on the quality of associated newspaper coverage: retrospective cohort study

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d8164 (Published 27 January 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:d8164
  1. Lisa M Schwartz, professor12,
  2. Steven Woloshin, professor12,
  3. Alice Andrews, instructor2,
  4. Therese A Stukel, professor345
  1. 1VA Outcomes Group, Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, White River Junction, VT 05009, USA
  2. 2Center for Medicine and the Media, The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, Lebanon, NH, USA
  3. 3Center for Population Health, The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, Lebanon
  4. 4Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, Toronto, ON, Canada
  5. 5Department of Health Policy, Management, and Evaluation, University of Toronto, Toronto
  1. Correspondence to: S Woloshin steven.woloshin{at}dartmouth.edu
  • Accepted 2 November 2011

Abstract

Objective To determine whether the quality of press releases issued by medical journals can influence the quality of associated newspaper stories.

Design Retrospective cohort study of medical journal press releases and associated news stories.

Setting We reviewed consecutive issues (going backwards from January 2009) of five major medical journals (Annals of Internal Medicine, BMJ, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, JAMA, and New England Journal of Medicine) to identify the first 100 original research articles with quantifiable outcomes and that had generated any newspaper coverage (unique stories ≥100 words long). We identified 759 associated newspaper stories using Lexis Nexis and Factiva searches, and 68 journal press releases using Eurekalert and journal website searches. Two independent research assistants assessed the quality of journal articles, press releases, and a stratified random sample of associated newspaper stories (n=343) by using a structured coding scheme for the presence of specific quality measures: basic study facts, quantification of the main result, harms, and limitations.

Main outcome Proportion of newspaper stories with specific quality measures (adjusted for whether the quality measure was present in the journal article’s abstract or editor note).

Results We recorded a median of three newspaper stories per journal article (range 1-72). Of 343 stories analysed, 71% reported on articles for which medical journals had issued press releases. 9% of stories quantified the main result with absolute risks when this information was not in the press release, 53% did so when it was in the press release (relative risk 6.0, 95% confidence interval 2.3 to 15.4), and 20% when no press release was issued (2.2, 0.83 to 6.1). 133 (39%) stories reported on research describing beneficial interventions. 24% mentioned harms (or specifically declared no harms) when harms were not mentioned in the press release, 68% when mentioned in the press release (2.8, 1.1 to 7.4), and 36% when no press release was issued (1.5, 0.49 to 4.4). 256 (75%) stories reported on research with important limitations. 16% reported any limitations when limitations were not mentioned in the press release, 48% when mentioned in the press release (3.0, 1.5 to 6.2), and 21% if no press release was issued (1.3, 0.50 to 3.6).

Conclusion High quality press releases issued by medical journals seem to make the quality of associated newspaper stories better, whereas low quality press releases might make them worse.

Footnotes

  • We thank Barnett S Kramer for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript; and Honor Passow for organising the databases of the journal articles, press releases, and newspaper stories, and for coding.

  • Contributors: LMS and SW contributed equally to the creation of the manuscript—the order of their names is entirely arbitrary; they contributed to the study conception, design, analysis, and writing of the manuscript; and are guarantors. AA contributed to the implementation and critical review of manuscript drafts. TAS contributed to the study design, provided statistical support, and undertook a critical review of manuscript drafts.

  • Funding: This study was supported by a grant from the National Cancer Institute. The funding source had no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; and preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript.

  • Competing interests: All authors have completed the Unified Competing Interest form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf (available on request from the corresponding author) and declare: no support from any organisation for the submitted work; no financial relationships with any organisations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous three years; and no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work.

  • Data sharing: No additional data available.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial License, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non commercial and is otherwise in compliance with the license. See: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/ and http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/legalcode.

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